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Dec 9, 2014 7:27 AM

Frenchman held 3 years by al-Qaida freed in Africa

The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) A Frenchman held for more than three years by al-Qaida's North African branch was freed Tuesday, 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, 51, who was described by the French president as in "relatively good health" despite his long captivity.

Tuesday's release, greeted with joy among many in France, stands in contrast to the attempted rescue in Yemen last weekend that ended in the deaths of two hostages an American and South African held by al-Qaida.

Lazarevic was now en route to Niamey, the capital of Niger, French President Francois Hollande said as he thanked Niger's 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," Hollande added.

Hollande's government insists it pays no ransoms and does not exchange prisoners, although in September he acknowledged for the first time that "other countries have done so to help us."

President Barack Obama last month ordered a review of the U.S. response to citizens being taken hostage abroad after the deaths of several Americans held by Islamic extremists. But the Obama administration said the review will not include changing the policy against ransoms.

"You have a choice between the policy of Mr. Obama, which appears to be not to negotiate and to see hostages killed, and a position of negotiating without admitting it," Alain Marsaud, a conservative French lawmaker, told the BFM television network. "It's true that we negotiate, we pay, and we try to get results .... There isn't a single Frenchman who believes Mr. Lazarevic was freed because Mr. Hollande has nice eyes."

Another Frenchman kidnapped in Mali in November 2011 along with 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 Lazarevic's release came after negotiations to free two al-Qaida fighters arrested in his abduction.

The two al-Qaida detainees were transferred to mediators in Niger on Saturday and turned over to al-Qaida, the Malian official said. It was not clear if they remained in Niger.

A French official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive said Lazarevic was freed Tuesday but declined to give any details on the release of the al-Qaida prisoners beyond saying the negotiations over Lazarevic's release were led by Mali and Niger.

Lazarevic and Verdon were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori in northeastern Mali while doing a feasibility study for a future cement factory, their families have said. Speculation is widespread, however, that there were other reasons for their presence in Mali, a long-time desert hideout for al-Qaida and other extremists in Africa's Sahel region.

Hostage-taking is a lucrative business in Mali and other Sahel countries. American officials have quietly accused France and other European countries of paying ransoms for their kidnapped citizens. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb took numerous Western hostages until France intervened in Mali in January 2013 to rout out extremists.

Hollande on Tuesday 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.

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's among the governments that directly negotiate for their liberation."

"It's part of geopolitics," Martinet told BFM television. "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 like the British and Americans held by Islamic extremists.

One American soldier held by Taliban fighters, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, was freed in exchange for the release of five Taliban prisoners from the prison in Guantanamo Bay.

In the failed rescue Saturday in Yemen, U.S. officials said special forces were trying to free American hostage Luke Somers because al-Qaida had threatened to kill him. They did not realize that he was being held with a South African hostage, Pierre Korkie, who was on the verge of being freed after ransom negotiations with the kidnappers.

Yolande Korkie, his wife, was abducted along with her husband and freed earlier. She said Tuesday in Johannesburg, South Africa, that she forgives those responsible for 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."


Baba Ahmed from Casablanca, Morocco, and Christopher Torchia from Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed.


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