Joy as French reporters freed in Afghanistan
Two French television journalists kidnapped in Afghanistan were released Wednesday after spending 18 long months as prisoners of the Taliban.
The pair, 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.
Their employer said they were in good health and spirits and were due to fly back to the Villacoublay air base outside Paris on Thursday to be reunited with their families.
"Obviously, I'll be there to welcome them," said Ghesquiere's overjoyed partner Beatrice Coulon. "It's a shock. Hearing about it like this, it's hard to talk," said 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 she was given the news by President Nicolas Sarkozy's office.
"For the past few hours, our two hostages in Afghanistan have been in the hands of French forces at the base in Tagab," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told parliament to a chorus of cheers.
"Our two hostages are in good health and in a few hours they will be on French soil," 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.
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 Islamists who ruled Afghanistan until a US-led invasion in 2001 and are now in revolt against the Kabul government. The guerrillas accused the journalists of spying.
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's withdrawing soldiers from Afghanistan.
Bin Laden was killed in a US commando raid in Pakistan last month, and Sarkozy announced last week that "several hundred" French troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of the year.
There was no immediate word, however, on why the kidnappers had decided to release the men and whether France had many any concessions.
The pair's release brought relief to French media colleagues, some of who broke down in tears of joy when they heard the news at a pre-planned vigil being held in Paris to draw attention to their plight.
"We congratulate the journalists themselves as well as the French government and the French nation," spokesman Siamak Heravi told AFP in Kabul. "This is an achievement ... we welcome their release."
Several French officials used the occasion of the pair's release to appeal for the release of several more French hostages still thought to be held by illegal armed groups around the world.
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.
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.
Three French aid workers, two women and a manm were kidnapped last month in Yemen's lawless Hadramut province.
© 2011 AFP