French reporters freed in Afghanistan head home
Two French television journalists were flying home Thursday from Afghanistan after spending 18 months as Taliban prisoners and becoming the longest held Western hostages in the war-torn nation.
Cameraman Stephane Taponier and reporter Herve Ghesquiere of state network France 3 were seized in November 2009 in the mountains of Kapisa, an unstable region east of the Afghan capital Kabul.
The two were expected at Villacoublay air base outside Paris on Thursday around 8:00 am (0600 GMT) to be reunited with their families, a French embassy official in Kabul told AFP.
They were "surprisingly well, both physically and mentally", the official added.
Ghesquiere's overjoyed partner Beatrice Coulon said: "Obviously, I'll be there to welcome them."
"It's a shock. Hearing about it like this, it's hard to talk," added Taponier's brother Stephane.
"It's wonderful," declared Taponier's mother Arlette. "I know that they're free, I don't know much else," she told AFP after being given the news by President Nicolas Sarkozy's office.
To a chorus of cheers, Prime Minister Francois Fillon told parliament earlier that the freed hostages were in the hands of French forces at a base in Tagab, Afghanistan.
"Our two hostages are in good health," he said, paying tribute to French forces and agents serving in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led coalition.
France has nearly 4,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting against the Taliban, alongside a much larger US force and contingents from European allies and Canada.
In a statement, Sarkozy's office said: "The president is delighted at the liberation of our two compatriots, Stephane Taponier and Herve Ghesquiere, as well as their interpreter Reza Din."
The abduction had been claimed by the Taliban, the hardline Islamist group that ruled Afghanistan until a US-led invasion in 2001, now in revolt against the Kabul government. The guerrillas accused the journalists of spying.
"We congratulate the journalists themselves as well as the French government and the French nation," Siamak Heravi, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, told AFP in Kabul. "This is an achievement ... we welcome their release."
In January, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden threatened France in an audio tape message and said that the journalists' release would depend on France withdrawing soldiers from Afghanistan.
Bin Laden was killed in a US commando raid in Pakistan in May, and Sarkozy announced last week that "several hundred" French troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of the year in line with US pullouts.
There was no immediate word, however, on why the kidnappers had decided to release the men and whether France had many any concessions.
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe insisted that France does not pay ransom for hostages.
Juppe said Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai had helped Paris secure the return of Taponier and Ghesquiere.
Juppe also sought to clear up confusion over the fate of two Afghan assistants captured with the French crew when they were ambushed on a road east of Kabul while covering the guerrilla war being fought in the region.
"The two other helpers were freed some time ago, but this was not made public," Juppe explained, citing the need for secrecy in resolving hostage situations.
The pair's release brought relief to French media colleagues, some of whom shed tears of joy when they heard the news at a pre-planned vigil held in Paris to draw attention to their plight.
French officials appealed for the release of other French hostages still thought to be held by armed groups around the world.
Three French aid workers -- two women and a man -- were kidnapped last month in Yemen's lawless Hadramut province.
Four French expatriates working for the nuclear firm Areva and one of its subcontractors have been held hostage in the Sahara by Al-Qaeda's north African affiliate AQIM since September 2010. A female hostage was released.
A French agent from the DGSE foreign intelligence service, identified by the pseudonym Denis Allex, has been held in Somalia by Islamist militants since he was kidnapped from his Mogadishu hotel in July 2009.
© 2011 AFP