French, Malagasy, Togolese hostages of al Qaeda freed
Niamey: Three nationals of France, Madagascar and Togo taken hostage by an al Qaeda regional offshoot in Niger in September have been released after a ransom was paid, sources said on Friday.
The three were freed overnight in Niger territory and were believed to be in good health as they were escorted to the capital Niamey, the French presidency said.
A source said a ransom had been paid but declined to disclose the amount.
"We were able to convince the abductors that the release is not (al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's) business, but theirs," said the source, close to Malian and Nigerien mediators involved in negotiations for the trio's release.
A total of seven hostages including four other French nationals -- an executive of French nuclear giant Areva among them -- were seized in September in the west African country's uranium-mining town of Arlit and then taken into Mali. But they were later scattered and moved outside the country.
One of the freed hostages, Frenchwoman Francoise Larribe, was suffering from cancer and undergoing chemotherapy shortly before she was abducted, her family said.
The group's abduction was claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose leader warned France to pull its troops out of Afghanistan if it wanted to see the safe return of the French hostages.
AQIM released a photo showing the hostages in a desert surrounded by armed men and one of the abductors with his face uncovered.
Pierre Camatte, a former French hostage who was detained for three months in the Mali desert, said he recognised the man as Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, one of the group's most radical leaders.
Abu Zeid directed the kidnapping and beheading of 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in 2010 after a failed rescue attempt by French forces and was behind the murder in 2009 of British hostage Edwin Dyer.
The north African branch of al Qaeda operates in a vast desert area across Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, where it carries out attacks, trafficking and kidnapping of Westerners.
In January, AQIM kidnapped two 25-year-old Frenchmen from a restaurant in Niamey, but the victims were killed in Mali after an attempt by French special forces to rescue them floundered.
And earlier this month the al Qaeda group snatched a 53-year-old Italian tourist in Algeria.
In a tape broadcast on Al-Jazeera television last month, bin Laden said the release of French hostages depended on a pullout of French soldiers from Afghanistan and warned Paris of a "high price" for its policies.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy retorted that each murder of a French citizen by militants only reinforced his determination to fight terrorism.