Three French hostages freed in Yemen arrive home
Three French hostages kidnapped by Al-Qaeda militants in Yemen more than five months ago arrived home Monday after being freed following what tribal sources said was a ransom payment.
The plane carrying the three aid workers -- two women and a man who have not yet been identified -- touched down at a military airport outside Paris where they were welcomed by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.
On Monday, a tribal chief who led the mediation efforts with Al-Qaeda said a "ransom was paid" to secure the release of the hostages but he did not reveal the amount or say who paid it.
However, France insisted that it had not paid for their release. "We do not pay ransoms," French foreign ministry spokesman Bernard Valero said at a press conference.
The trio disappeared on May 28 and, according to a tribal source who helped arrange their freedom, were moved to several different hideouts in their months of captivity before being freed in Oman.
The hostages were members of the French NGO Triangle Generation Humanitaire which expressed "huge relief" after receiving news of their release but declined to name the three, saying only they were aged between 25 and 30.
Juppe told France 3 television that France does not pay ransoms and hailed the "decisive role played by the Omani authorities" in securing their release.
"There was no military intervention," he said, adding that the three were all in good health.
After their release, the three were flown to an Omani military base outside the capital Muscat.
"We, the three of us, are very thankful to his majesty Sultan Qaboos of Oman for his involvement and all the efforts deployed to lead us to freedom and we are very grateful for the great hospitality we have had during our stay in Oman," one of the hostages told reporters in Muscat.
"We are very happy to go back to our families and to be finally free," he said, reading a statement.
The male hostage sported a beard and one of the women was wearing a long skirt while the other wore pants.
The aid workers flew in to Muscat from the Omani city of Salalah near the border with Yemen, where they had been held in the province of Shabwa, a tribal official involved in their release told AFP.
In a telephone interview, tribal chief Ali Abdel Salam said he had the task of ensuring all three hostages were driven safely from Al-Qaeda strongholds in Yemen's lawless regions across the border to Oman.
"I drove all three of them, one at a time, accompanied by my two brothers," he said.
The process of releasing the captives held by Al-Qaeda since May 28 began last Tuesday and only ended when the last hostage was handed over to Omani officials on Saturday night.
They were kidnapped in Yemen's Hadramawt province and remained captive in the town of Seyun, 600 kilometres (370 miles) east of Sanaa, for several weeks before being moved to a farm in Loder, an Al-Qaeda stronghold in the restive Abyan province.
But an increase in attacks by US drones on suspected Al-Qaeda targets forced the kidnappers to relocate the hostages to Al-Kour, a barren mountainous region that straddles Abyan and Shabwa provinces, the tribal source told AFP.
Al-Kour has served as the hideout for several top leader's of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and was used by US cleric Anwar al-Awlaqi, who was killed in a suspected US drone strike on September 30.
It remains unclear what role Oman played in securing their release. In September, the Gulf state paid the ransom for two US hikers held by Iran for more than two years.
Local Yemeni sources said Monday that the Al-Awalaq tribe led negotiations with Fahd al-Qusso, a tribal member and AQAP head wanted by the United States for his attack on the USS Cole in Aden in October 2000 that killed 17 seamen.
Tribes in Yemen have often kidnapped foreigners to pressure the authorities into making concessions. More than 200 foreigners have been abducted over the past 15 years, with almost all of them later freed unharmed.
© 2011 AFP