Last French hostage freed in North Africa, France says

Last French hostage freed in North Africa, France says
Serge Lazarevic was held by Al Qaeda's North African branch since his capture in Mali in 2011. (Associated Press)

A French hostage being held by Al Qaeda's North African branch for three years has been released, French President Francois Hollande confirmed Tuesday.

Serge Lazaravic, who was abducted while on a business trip to Mali, was in "reasonably good health despite the terrible conditions of his captivity," said a statement released by the Elysee Palace.


Lazaravic, 50, who holds French and Serbian citizenship, was the last French hostage being held by Islamic extremists.

France has repeatedly insisted that it never pays ransoms and refused to give any details Tuesday about the conditions of Lazaravic's release by the group Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The government statement said it came about as the result of "intense efforts" by the governments in Mali and neighboring Niger.

The former hostage was said to be en route for Niamey, the capital of Niger, where he was expected to fly directly back to France.

"France has no longer any hostages in any corner of the world and we should aim to keep it that way," Hollande said on France's BFMTV. "Today is a day of joy."

At one point, at least 14 French nationals were being held hostage by Islamic militants in West Africa. Lazarevic was traveling with a second Frenchman, businessman Philippe Verdon, when gunmen with the Al Qaeda faction burst into their hotel rooms in the central Mali city of Hombori on Nov. 24, 2011.

In March 2013, the kidnappers announced they had shot Verdon as a spy "in response to France's intervention in the north of Mali." France had launched Operation Serval, with Malian forces, the previous January to repel Islamist forces that had taken control of northern Mali and threatened to move south toward the capital, Bamako.

Last month the former hostage appeared in a video released by his captors appealing for Hollande to help him and saying he was seriously ill. He will be met by Hollande when he arrives in France on Wednesday.

For several days before Lazarevic's release was announced, the regional news website predicted he would be handed over in return for the release of two members of the Al Qaeda faction from a Bamako jail. The site also spoke of a possible ransom of $27.54 million paid to the kidnappers. There was no immediate response to the report by the French government.

The two men, who had been scheduled to stand trial in Mali on charges of kidnapping Lazarevic and Verdon, were freed and flown to Niger, according to news reports.

Michele Alliot-Marie, the former conservative foreign affairs minister, told BFMTV that "the French government never negotiates directly with the hostage-takers. We go through intermediaries."

Willsher is a special correspondent.