French hostage in Africa released
A Frenchman held for more than three years by al Qaida's North African branch has been freed, days after two of the men implicated in his abduction were reportedly released from a prison in Mali.
Negotiations among the governments of Niger, Mali and France led to freedom for Serge Lazarevic, who was described by the French president as in "relatively good health" despite the conditions of his captivity.
The release, greeted with joy among many in France - including several former hostages - stands in contrast to the attempted rescue in Yemen last weekend that ended in the deaths of an American and South African held by al Qaida.
Mr Lazarevic was en route to the capital of Niger, French president Francois Hollande said in announcing his release. He also thanked the Niger president for helping to free the Frenchman.
"We no longer have any hostages in any country of the world, and we should not have any," Mr Hollande added.
Another Frenchman kidnapped in Mali in November 2011 along with Mr Lazarevic, Philippe Verdon, was found dead in July 2013.
A security official in Mali, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety, said Mr Lazarevic's release came after negotiations to free two al Qaida fighters arrested in the two Frenchmen's abduction.
The two al Qaida detainees were transferred to mediators in Niger on Saturday and then turned over to al Qaida.
Hostage-taking has proved to be a lucrative business in Mali and other Sahel countries. Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb took numerous Western hostages until France intervened in Mali in January 2013 to rout out extremists.
Mr Hollande's government insists it pays no ransoms, although he has acknowledged that prisoner exchanges have been made on behalf of French hostages. American officials have quietly accused France and other European countries of paying ransoms.
Mr Hollande urged French citizens and companies to take continued precautions against kidnappings. At one point, at least 14 French nationals were held hostage by Islamic militants in West Africa.
Mr Lazarevic and Mr Verdon were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori in northeastern Mali. Their families say they were in the region doing a feasibility study for a future cement factory.
Pierre Martinet, a former official with France's DGSE spy service, said French citizens will continue to be targeted by extremist kidnappers "because they know it is among the governments that directly negotiates for their liberation."
"It's part of geopolitics," Martinet told the BFM television network. "I know very well that we have given money; I know people myself who have given money. It happens. We have to stop lying to ourselves."
The alternative, he said, is to have hostages killed by their kidnappers as has happened to British and Americans held by Islamic extremists.
In the failed rescue Saturday in Yemen, US officials said special forces were trying to free Luke Somers because al Qaida had threatened to kill the American. They did not realise that he was being held with a South African, Pierre Korkie, who was on the verge of being freed after ransom negotiations with the kidnappers.
Yolande Korkie, who was abducted along with her husband and freed earlier, said Tuesday she forgives his death.
"What will it help to accuse? What will it help to find out what happened?" she said, flanked by her two children. "Will it bring Pierre back? Never."