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Two French journalists freed in Afghanistan after 547 days

Two French journalists who have just been freed after being held hostage in Afghanistan for 18 months were expected back in France Thursday morning. Hervé Ghesquière and Stéphane Taponier were kidnapped by the Taliban in December 2009.

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Eighteen months after they were abducted in north-eastern Afghanistan, French journalists Hervé Ghesquière and Stéphane Taponier have been released, French President Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed Wednesday.

Ghesquière and Taponier, along with their Afghan translator, fixer and driver were kidnapped December 30, 2009 in the mountainous Kapisa province northeast of the Afghan capital of Kabul.

In a statement released Wednesday, Sarkozy’s office said, "The president is delighted at the liberation of our two compatriots, Hervé Ghesquière and Stéphane Taponier,” before going on to add, "The head of state joins in the joy of their families. He thanks (Afghan) President (Hamid) Karzai for his handling of this crisis as well as all those who took part in freeing the hostages."

According to the Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders, the two men’s translator, fixer and driver – Reza, Hidar and Sattar – have also been released.

‘An explosion of joy’

The news of their release came as colleagues and supporters gathered in downtown Paris Wednesday to increase awareness of the men’s plight on the 547th day of their captivity.

Reporting from the gathering, FRANCE 24’s Mathieu Mabin said the demonstration had almost ended and people had begun dispersing when there was an “explosion of joy” as senior editors at France Television - the two men’s employers - told the crowd that the families of the two men had just received a call from Sarkozy informing them that Ghesquière and Taponier were free and would return to Paris Thursday.

“We’re overjoyed, literally overjoyed,” said French reporter Florence Aubenas in an interview with FRANCE 24.

  • Stéphane Taponier. Cameraman, 46, who has covered the Iraq war and several conflicts on the African continent. He has been travelling to Afghanistan regularly since 2000.
  • Hervé Ghesquière. Journalist, 47, for the France 3 newsmagazine "Exhibits".  He has covered conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq as well as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

A former reporter at the French daily, “Libération,” Aubenas spent two months in captivity in Iraq in 2006 and was part of a committee to demand the release of the two men. “We were in the process of organizing another series of events to mark the 550th day of their captivity and when we got this news, there was immense joy and relief,” Aubenas added.

A cause célèbre across France

Ghesquière and Taponier’s 18-month captivity marked the longest period of detention of a French journalist in the field since the Lebanese Civil War during the late 1980’s. Their plight became a cause célèbre across France.

French journalist unions held regular events to raise awareness of the issue and launched solidarity websites while giant portraits of the two men were draped on a number of official buildings in Paris and in the men’s hometowns of Bordeaux and Nantes.

An October 2010 concert to mark their 500th day in captivity drew thousands and a petition calling for their release attracted around 80,000 signatures in December.

Since their abduction, photos of the pair, often captioned by their day count in captivity, have appeared regularly on television news broadcasts and Web sites.

‘Wind of freedom blowing’

Shortly after the news of their release broke, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon told parliament that the two journalists were in good health.

"The wind of freedom that has blown -- that is blowing – through the Arab world also needs to be taken into account by the [other] hostage takers, who need to realise that this is not the right way to meet their objectives," said Fillon. "They must free these men and women and join the democratic debate."

Ghesquière and Taponier were believed to be captured by a local militant in northeast Afghanistan before they were apparently handed over to Mullah Beriyal, a Taliban commander linked to the Quetta shura – or the circle of advisors to close to Taliban chief Mullah Omar, according to French news reports.

In April 2010, a video of the two journalists published on a jihadist Web site featured the two men, who appeared to be in good health, calling for the release of Afghan prisoners.

In the video, a Taliban representative issued a message to Sarkozy demanding the release of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan. The video then featured a bearded Ghesquière reading a statement in English: "As long as the Taliban demands are not met, we will be executed,” he said. Video footage also showed a gaunt-looking Taponier sitting cross legged on a maroon carpet. The footage appeared to have been shot indoors.

According to Mabin, there was no word of any deal or ransom payments for the release of the two journalists. French authorities typically deny reports of any deals or ransom payments in exchange for hostage releases.

 

 

 

 

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