Frenchman’s ‘adventure novel’ escape from terror
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French President François Hollande has hailed Francis Collomp’s bravery in escaping his captors in northern Nigeria over the weekend, but some observers have questioned whether the French engineer really managed to flee his Islamist captors.
It has been called an escape "worthy of an adventure novel", and like many such exploits, French engineer Francis Collomp’s flight to freedom in northern Nigeria has an element of mystery as well.
Hours after the news of Collomp’s liberation broke on Sunday, French President François Hollande hailed the 63-year-old Frenchman’s bravery.
“This man showed exceptional courage. At the risk of his life, he took advantage of an opportunity and then, in conditions worthy of an adventure novel, he managed to free himself," Hollande told reporters during a state visit to Israel.
Hollande gave no details of the escape, but a Nigerian police official told reporters that Collomp managed to escape his abductors in Zaria, a town in the northern Nigerian state of Kaduna.
“He was able to escape, got onto a bike and went to the nearest police station in the area,” said Kaduna State Police Commissioner Olufemi Adenaike.
Speaking to reporters in the state capital of Kaduna on Sunday, Adenaike said Collomp managed to get away while his abductors were praying. “He watched his captors’ prayer time. They always prayed for 15 minutes. And yesterday, they did not lock the door to his cell. While they were at prayer, he sneaked out and began to run.”
According to Adenaike, the Frenchman then managed to stop a motorcycle taxi commonly used it Nigeria and took it to a police station in Zaria, from where he was taken to the regional capital of Kaduna.
On Monday, a weak but visibly relieved Collomp arrived at the Villacoublay military airport near Paris, where he was greeted by French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.
Collomp was taken for medical tests after his arrival in France and is expected to be debriefed by French intelligence officials.
While the details of Collomp’s liberation have not yet been released, initial reports said the French engineer fled during a firefight between Nigerian security forces and the Islamist militants holding him. Quoting an unnamed French source “close to the case” on Sunday, the AFP reported that Collomp’s cell door was not closed during the firefight.
In a statement announcing Collomp’s release, the French presidential office on Sunday thanked the Nigerian authorities for their “decisive action”. No further details were provided.
“There are slightly different versions,” acknowledged Douglas Herbert, FRANCE 24’s International News Editor. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that one excludes the other. It just means the relevant details vary from one [account] to the other.”
Collomp was kidnapped on December 19, 2012 from the residence of his employer, the French wind turbine manufacturer Vergnet, in the northern Nigerian state of Katsina.
The kidnapping, which left two bodyguards and a bystander dead, was claimed by Nigerian militant Islamist group Ansaru.
A relatively new group, Ansaru is considered a breakaway of the better known Boko Haram group. The two groups were officially placed on the US State Department list of foreign terrorist organisations (FTO) last week.
Skepticism on Twitter
The news of Collomb’s dramatic escape was greeted with some skepticism on Twitter, where many users alluded to France’s record of paying large ransoms for hostage releases.
The French government routinely denies paying ransoms. But following last month’s release of four French nationals – who were kidnapped from a uranium mining town in Niger – there were credible reports that a ransom of more than 20 million euros was paid for their release.
“Odd that it is always, always the French captives who escape kidnappers,” noted one Twitter post, which continued, “door left open - BUT NO RANSOM PAID, GOTTIT?!”
But for Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, the escape scenario could be plausible.
“In my view, the hypothesis of an escape would look coherent even if it seems strange that such a group could lower their attention to allow an escape,” said Rouiller in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “If you look at past experiences when it comes to Boko Haram, every time there has been a military operation, the hostages have been killed.”
In May 2012, a German hostage purportedly kidnapped by al Qaeda’s North African branch, AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), in Nigeria was killed by his captors during a Nigerian military raid to save him.
Earlier this year, seven foreign hostages – including a Briton and an Italian national – were killed in northern Nigeria by Ansaru militants. A statement released by the group claimed “the Nigerian and British government operation” prompted the executions. But Britain and Nigeria denied they launched any rescue mission.
‘A first’ among African jihadist groups
While successful escapes from jihadist groups across the world are rare, they are not unlikely.
In March 2012, a Swiss couple held by the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan managed to escape their captors. And in 2009, a New York Times reporter managed to flee to safety after he jumped over a compound wall in the Pakistani Taliban stronghold of North Waziristan, where he was being held captive.
But while cases of hostages fleeing their Pakistani Taliban – or Tehreek-e-Taliban – captors have been well documented, successful escapes from jihadist groups in North and West Africa in recent years are unheard of.
“In Africa, this is really the first time this has happened in Nigeria,” said Rouiller. “As far as I know, in Mali and in Nigeria, no one has escaped in the past 10 years.”
If hostages have not managed to flee to safety in the hostile Sahel zone between the Sahara and African savannah, it’s not from a lack of trying.
Shortly after his release last month, Daniel Larribe, a French engineer who was kidnapped in Niger in September 2010, recounted a failed escape attempt while he was in AQIM captivity.
In an interview with FRANCE 24’s sister station, Radio France Internationale (RFI), Larribe revealed that in February 2012 – more than two years after his abduction – he managed to escape in northern Mali, where he was transferred from neighbouring Niger. But he was spotted by local shepherds who alerted his captors and was recaptured.
Like many hostages who have unsuccessfully attempted to flee, Larribe was subjected to far harsher treatment after his recapture as a punishment for his bid to freedom.
‘Some uncomfortable moments’ in Ansaru ranks
A Nigerian Islamist group that announced its existence in January 2012, Ansaru is linked to AQIM and considered an even more brutal and hardline group than Boko Haram, according to security experts.
“Boko Haram is a much more a nationalist group, while the Ansaru ideology is more oriented to global jihad,” said Rouiller.
In an interview with FRANCE 24, Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, a Nigeria specialist at the Institute of Development Research (IRD) in Paris, said Collomp’s case was “the first time an Ansaru hostage has come out alive and has managed to escape.”
If the reports of the recent escape of French hostage Collomp are true, it would be a setback for Ansaru.
“If he [Collomp] really escaped, it’s not good for Ansaru’s reputation – that’s clear,” said Rouiller. “There will be questions for the people responsible for guarding him and I suspect they will face some uncomfortable moments.”