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French hostage in joyful return after three years' captivity

FRANCE 24 | Screen grab of Serge Lazarevic

France's last remaining hostage in Africa, Serge Lazarevic, arrived home Wednesday after three years held by Islamist militants, where he was greeted by French President François Hollande.

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A plane carrying the 51-year-old, who was snatched by armed men belonging to al Qaeda’s North African branch (AQIM) in Mali on November 24, 2011, touched down at a military base near Paris.

A clearly relieved and beaming Lazarevic, dressed casually in a blue hooded top, was welcomed warmly by France’s president before an emotional embrace with his family.

“Life is beautiful,” he told reporters. “There is nothing dearer than freedom.”

Hollande then praised the efforts of French officials who had secured his release, and warned French citizens to “avoid going to areas why you might be kidnapped”.

International cooperation for release

The Paris-based businessman, who has joint French and Serbian nationalities, was seized along with a French geologist, Philippe Verdon, a year before northern Mali fell to jihadist control following a March 2012 military coup.

In July 2013, French authorities confirmed that Verdon had been killed following an AQIM statement that the group had killed the French geologist “in retaliation” for the French military operation in Mali launched in January 2013.

Announcing the release Tuesday, Hollande thanked Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Niger’s President Mahamadou Issofou for their work and “personal commitment” to securing Lazarevic’s freedom.

It was not known if Lazarevic was held in Mali or neighbouring Niger after his capture. Militants in the desolate Sahel scrubland region are known to cross borders using ancient smuggling routes in one of the world’s most inhospitable regions

Video messages from captivity

Before his release, Lazarevic was last seen in a video released on November 18 together with a Dutch national appealing to their respective countries to negotiate their release.

The footage showed Lazarevic inside a pickup truck and there was nothing in the footage to indicate where the video was shot.

In the video Lazarevic said he was suffering from several health problems and that his situation had worsened since France joined the international coalition against the Islamic State group in Iraq earlier this year.

"I have a kidney problem, I suffer from high blood pressure, asthma and also my knee [is weak],” said a breathless Lazarevic. “I feel my life is in danger since the French intervention in Iraq…I ask you, Mr. President to do everything for my release because you are responsible for everything that happens to me.”

AQIM periodically released images of Lazarevic while he was in captivity pleading with French authorities to secure his freedom.

A previous video of Lazarevic, broadcast in June on the Dubai-based Akhbar Al Aan TV station, showed the 50-year-old Frenchman also urging Hollande to negotiate his release.

Ransom controversy

There was no immediate word of whether a ransom was paid for his release. While French authorities repeatedly maintain that France does not pay ransoms, Western diplomats say European countries such as France, Spain and Italy are widely known to use intermediaries to pay million-dollar ransoms to militants in exchange for the release of their nationals.

In a July 2014 article, the New York Times estimated that al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid in 2013 alone.

Lazarevic’s release came days after two hostages -- US photojournalist Luke Somers and South African aid worker Pierre Korkie -- were killed in Yemen during a failed rescue attempt launched by US and Yemeni forces.

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