Freed French hostages reunited with families

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Two French journalists freed after 18 months' captivity at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan stepped onto home soil and into the arms of their families at an airport near Paris on Thursday.

Cameraman Stephane Taponier and reporter Herve Ghesquiere stepped smiling onto the tarmac at Villacoublay military airport, southwest of the French capital, shortly after 9:00 am (0700 GMT).

They embraced waiting relatives and shook hands with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, captured on televised images broadcast from a remote end of the runway where they disembarked.

Ghesquiere made the first declarations about their captivity, telling reporters at the airport: "We were never threatened with death, never beaten."

He said he and his colleague were tired and had just "some minor health problems", and confirmed that he and Taponier were held "alone" separately last year for eight months of their ordeal.

The journalists, who work for state network France 3, were freed along with their Afghan interpreter Reza Din on Wednesday, the French government said, in circumstances that remained unclear.

The two Frenchmen had become the longest-held Western hostages in the nation stricken by the war which they were covering. They looked relaxed and healthy however as they stepped out into the sunshine on Thursday.

Taponier, in a black shirt and trousers, and Ghesquiere, in a black jumper and blue jeans, smiled broadly as they kissed relatives and exchanged words with Sarkozy and his wife.

A French embassy official in Kabul had told AFP on Wednesday that they were "surprisingly well, both physically and mentally".

Their abduction was 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.

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 its nearly 4,000 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in a US commando raid in Pakistan in May, and Sarkozy announced last week that "several hundred" French troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of the year in line with US pullouts.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 made any concessions.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe insisted that France does not pay ransoms for hostages. He said Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai had helped Paris secure the men's release.

A few months after the abduction, Sarkozy outraged their media colleagues by saying the two men were to blame for venturing into the dangerous region.

Juppe on Wednesday sought to clear up confusion over the fate of two Afghan assistants captured along with the Frenchmen and Din.

"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.

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 French agent from the DGSE foreign intelligence service has been held in Somalia by Islamist militants since he was kidnapped from his Mogadishu hotel in July 2009.

© 2011 AFP

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