DHA) TURKEY OUT TV OUT, Associated Press
PARIS — Ten months after their capture in Syria, four French journalists crossed the border into neighboring Turkey and reached freedom Saturday, though dozens more remain held in the country's chaotic civil war.
Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres — all said to be in good health — were freed over the weekend in unclear circumstances in what has become the world's most dangerous, and deadliest, conflict for journalists.
"We are very happy to be free ... and it's very nice to see the sky, to be able to walk, to be able to ... speak freely," said Francois, a noted war correspondent for Europe 1 radio, in footage recorded by the private Turkish news agency DHA. Smiling broadly, he thanked Turkish authorities for their help.
French President Francois Hollande's office said in a statement that he felt "immense relief" over the release despite the "very trying conditions" of their captivity.
Elias, a freelance photographer, also was working for Europe 1 radio. Henin and Torres are freelance journalists.
A DHA report said soldiers on patrol found the four blindfolded and handcuffed in Turkey's southeast Sanliurfa province late Friday. Turkish television aired images of the four at a police station and a local hospital.
It wasn't clear whether a ransom had been paid for their release, nor which group in Syria's chaotic 3-year-old conflict held the men. In his statement, Hollande thanked "all those" who contributed to the journalists' release without elaborating. Longstanding French practice is to name a specific country that contributed to hostage releases. France denies it pays ransom to free its hostages.
Several of the journalists' families told French television stations that they were recently told a "target window" was opening that could mean a return by Easter Sunday.
The four are expected to touch down in France on Sunday morning.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement that freedom for the hostages "was the result of long, difficult, precise, and necessarily discrete work."
Journalists around France rejoiced at the news of their colleagues' liberation.
"What's planned is that we will hold them in our arms," said an exuberant Europe 1 chief Fabien Namias on iTele TV news channel.
The four went missing in June 2013 in two incidents. Two were taken after being interrogated by extremist fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in the eastern province of Raqqa, said a Syrian activist who said he accompanied the journalists as translator and guide.
Hussam al-Ahmad, 23, told The Associated Press that Henin and Torres aroused the fighters' suspicion after they entered a school and asked to take photographs of the fighters as they played football. Al-Ahmad said the fighters held them for about six hours.
During his interrogation, al-Ahmad said he was asked: "How do you let these infidels enter Syria after they killed our people in Mali?" France launched a military intervention in January 2013 in Mali that scattered Islamic extremists who had taken over the country's north.
"I said, 'These brothers are reporters. They have a humanitarian message,' and then he got angry because I referred to the Frenchmen as my brothers," al-Ahmad said.
Al-Ahmad said Henin and Torres were seized four days after the interrogation, likely by the Islamic State, an al-Qaida breakaway group.
Al-Ahmad, who fled to Turkey months ago after being threatened by jihadis, said he burst into tears when he heard of the journalists' release.
"It's a day of celebration for me," he said.
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