Taliban did not hurt us: freed Frenchmen

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Two French journalists reunited with their families Thursday after 18 months' captivity in Afghanistan said their Taliban captors did not hurt them, but shed little light on how they were freed.

Cameraman Stephane Taponier and reporter Herve Ghesquiere, both 48, stepped into the sunshine at a military airport near Paris on Thursday morning, hugged and kissed relatives and shook hands with President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"I'm hungry for freedom, hungry for love, hungry full stop," Taponier told France 3 television.

Looking relaxed and healthy, they told reporters on the tarmac that they had not been mistreated by their captors but did not enjoy the Afghan mountain food, and passed the time listening to the radio and doing exercises.

"We were locked up 23 and three-quarter hours a day with just two toilet breaks, dawn and evening," said Ghesquiere, looking tired but smiling and laughing at times.

"We were never beaten," he said, but admitted he had some "minor health problems" after his long ordeal.

"The food wasn't the hostage special, it was more the Afghan mountain special -- not much to eat and always the same thing... It was really awful."

He said they had interesting discussions with their captors, via their interpreter Reza Din who was captured with them.

"You had to be tough... We hung in there, with lots of help from our interpreter Reza, who is also with his family now in Kabul," he said.

"We are very, very well," said Taponier. "We were never threatened, but the living conditions were still very hard."

Ghesquiere 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 Din on Wednesday in circumstances that remained unclear.

Taponier said that after having their hopes of release raised and dashed several times, they were given traditional white Taliban garments and taken on a long hike to a house where they were freed.

Two other Afghans captured with them had been released earlier, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said. He denied a ransom was paid and said Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai had helped Paris secure the Frenchmen's release.

French press citing unnamed officials reported a long negotiation process involving the French secret service, various intermediaries and a network of Taliban leaders.

The two Frenchmen had become the longest-held Western hostages in the nation stricken by the war which they were covering when they were captured on December 30, 2009.

Their abduction was claimed by the Taliban, the Islamist group that ruled Afghanistan until a US-led invasion in 2001, now in revolt against the Kabul government. The Taliban accused the journalists of spying.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, killed by US forces in Pakistan last month, had warned the journalists' release would depend on France withdrawing its nearly 4,000 soldiers from Afghanistan.

Sarkozy announced last week that France would begin pulling out hundreds of troops this year in line with US withdrawals. Juppe denied the men's release was linked to this announcement.

Stepping off the plane earlier, the journalists embraced waiting relatives and shook hands with Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.

A few months after the abduction, Sarkozy had said the two were to blame for venturing into the dangerous region, outraging their media colleagues who waged a continuous campaign to make sure they were not forgotten.

Ghesquiere said Thursday he remained devoted to war reporting despite his ordeal.

"I'm not likely to go back to Afghanistan tomorrow or the day after," he said. "But I want to do this job more than ever."

© 2011 AFP

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