“WE’RE so lucky to be French. It was a long haul, but we never lost hope.”
Those are the words of Didier François, one of four French journalists who returned home on Sunday after being held hostage by jihadists in Syria for 10 months.
He added: “From time to time, we got snatches of information. We knew that everyone was mobilised.”
Mr François, Nicolas Hénin, Edouard Elias and Pierre Torres were kidnapped in two separate incidents by radical Islamists in northern Syria in June 2013.
French intelligence services said they knew where the hostages were being held at all times, and had worked closely with colleagues from Britain, Spain, America and Turkey to rescue the quartet.
The hostages were found near the Syrian border with Turkey late on Friday. Early reports said they were blindfolded, but Mr Hénin told France 24 this was not true.
Details of the four men’s release remain a closely guarded secret. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the journalists’ rescue, “was the result of long, difficult, precise and necessarily discreet work”.
The BBC reported that negotiations with the kidnappers had been going on for several weeks but it is not known if anything was offered in return for freeing the men.
Both President François Hollande and Mr Fabius insisted no ransom - of any kind - had been paid to secure the journalists’ freedom.
Mr Fabius told radio station Europe 1: “France does not pay ransoms. Everything was done by negotiation.
Speaking on Sunday as he welcomed the four men back home at Villacoublay military airport near Paris, President Hollande said: “France is proud to have compatriots of this quality who work for the freedom of the press. And France is proud to have been able to secure their release.
“But there are still hostages being held because they are journalists.”
He was referring to Serge Lazarevic and Gilberto Leal Rodrigues, who are being held in North Africa.
He reiterated “his support to their families" and well as "his determination and the relentless mobilisation of the state” to fight for their release.
Mr Henin told France 24 that they the first they knew that something may be happening was when they received better food than they had been used to.
“Our release was a real surprise,” he said.
He added that, during their 10-month ordeal the kidnappers “regularly came to get evidence that we were alive… and that was very reassuring.”
Picture: France TV Infos / screengrab