Aubenas back home after five months in Baghdad cellar
PARIS, June 12 (AFP) - A French journalist freed after more than five months as a hostage in Iraq thanked the French public and media on her arrival back in Paris Sunday for a campaign of support she said sustained her through the "severe" conditions of her captivity.
The demonstrations and media messages that kept up during her detention “allow me to be here today,” Florence Aubenas, a 44-year-old senior correspondent for the Liberation newspaper, said shortly after arriving in Paris on board a small French air force passenger jet.
She told journalists she had been kept blindfolded, with her hands and feet bound, in a cellar somewhere in Baghdad during her detention.
Looking thin, but relaxed and smiling, with sunglasses perched back in her hair and wearing a blue t-shirt and cardigan, she said she would give a full account of her experience in a news conference on Tuesday.
Her release triggered a way of joy across France and elsewhere in Europe.
That was tempered, however, by concerns for the dozens of other hostages of other nationalities still being held in Iraq.
The Liberation daily said Aubenas was to be questioned by France’s DGSE foreign intelligence service over the next few days before being allowed to relax with her family, all of whom greeted her in emotional fashion at the military airbase where she landed.
President Jacques Chirac, who was also there, earlier Sunday thanked the country for their support of Aubenas and of her Iraqi interpreter, Hussein Hanun, both of whom were abducted as they left a Baghdad hotel on January 5.
Hanun, who was also released, returned to his home in Baghdad in a French embassy car. On getting out he was emotionally greeted by his deliriously happy wife and his family.
“On behalf of everyone, I want to express to Florence Aubenas and Hussein Hanun our happiness and that of the entire nation to know that they are free,” Chirac said in his televised address.
He paid homage to an “exceptional” public campaign that had pressed for the pair’s release, as well as to Aubenas’s family and to the French intelligence and military services deployed.
In her comments on her return, Aubenas said her abductors at one point allowed her to lift her blindfold and watch a French television news broadcast.
After a moment of incomprehension, she realised that the “Florence-Hussein: 140 days” message on the screen referred to her and Hanun’s plight and that all of France was with her in hoping for a release.
That thunderbolt was overwhelming and boosted her morale immeasurably, she said. “You are so happy when you see that that you are floored,” she said.
Although French officials announced the release Sunday, it emerged that Aubenas and Hanun were released in Baghdad on Saturday in circumstances yet to be clarified.
French authorities did not identify the hostage-takers.
The government denied suggestions that a ransom was exchanged for the pair’s release.
“There was absolutely no demand for money. No ransom was paid,” government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope told the Europe 1 radio station.
A senior reporter for Liberation, Aubenas, 44, covered many of the world’s most challenging crisis points in her 18 years at the daily, such as Rwanda, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
On her latest assignment to Iraq, Aubenas was reporting on the fate of Iraqis driven out of their homes after the US military assault on the city of Fallujah.
The managing editor of the left-wing Liberation, Antoine de Gaudemar, said of Aubenas’ release: “We are completely swept away with joy at Liberation. It’s a huge relief after five months of nightmare.”
Aubenas’ mother, Jacqueline, said “we’re so happy” at the news and added that Chirac had telephoned her Saturday to give her the news but had asked that the family keep it quiet.
In Madrid, ministers and representatives from 30 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia and Europe, attending an international conference on culture, some close to tears, greeted the news with an ovation lasting several minutes.
The European Union also hailed the release, and called on “the different groups in Iraq to free all remaining hostages in captivity and pursue their goals through the political process and not through violence and intimidation.”
More than 20 foreigners are believed to be held hostage in Iraq, including citizens of Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Japan, Jordan, the Philippines, Turkey and the United States. Many more Iraqis have been abducted.
The last time the French public had seen Aubenas was March 1, when a video was released of her looking gaunt and desperate and pleading for help.
In the video, she made a direct appeal to a renegade MP in Chirac’s ruling party, Didier Julia, who headed up an unofficial negotiation team that worked in parallel with government efforts to free two other French reporters taken hostage who were finally released in December.
That connection, and the unknowns surrounding the manner in which France secured Aubenas’ release, raised questions as to whether a ransom was paid.
On Saturday, the head of the Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders, Robert Menard, voiced the suspicion, telling AFP that Aubenas’ hostage-takers had made a ransom demand of USD 15 million within three weeks of the abduction.
“There is no hostage release without something in return and, among the demands, there is obviously a demand for money,” he said.
But, after the French foreign ministry retorted that his comments “about a so-called ransom in no way correspond with the reality,” Menard issued a statement saying he had “badly expressed himself.”
For Chirac, Aubenas’s release was a timely and major boost for his flagging political fortunes.
His authority has been severely weakened by last month’s rejection of a referendum on whether to adopt the EU constitution, his popularity is at an all-time low, and his newly reshuffled government is limping along under the command of new Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.
Subject: French News