Freed French hostages leave Niger after 3 years in Sahara


NIAMEY, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Four Frenchmen held hostage inthe Sahara desert by al Qaeda-linked gunmen for three years leftNiger on a French government plane on Wednesday morning.

The men, who were kidnapped in 2010 while working for Frenchnuclear group Areva and a subsidiary of constructiongroup Vinci in northern Niger, were freed on Tuesdayafter secret talks.

A Reuters correspondent at Niamey airport said the four menboarded the jet with two French ministers, including ForeignMinister Laurent Fabius, dispatched to pick them up.

"I am very happy. It was difficult, the ordeal of alifetime," said Thierry Dol, one of the freed men.

Fabius said the men were in a state of shock, having beenisolated for so long. "They slept well, but on the floor as theyare not yet able to sleep on mattresses," he said.

The men's release gave Francois Hollande a boost a day aftera poll showed he had become the most unpopular French presidenton record.

No details have been given on the circumstances of thequartet's release but Niger's President Mohamadou Issoufou saidthey had been retrieved from northern Mali.

Thousands of French troops were dispatched to Mali's desertnorth earlier this year to prevent Islamists and criminal gangsoperating in the zone who occupied the region in 2012 fromextending their reach further south.

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