Four French hostages kidnapped in Niger freed


* Frenchmen had been held for three years by al Qaeda

* Hostages to return on Wednesday, boost for Hollande

* Seven French hostages still held overseas

By Kader Mazou and John Irish

NIAMEY/PARIS, Oct 29 (Reuters) - Four French hostageskidnapped in Niger by al Qaeda's north African wing have beenreleased following secret talks with officials from the WestAfrican country, ending three years in captivity.

Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dol and Marc Feretwere kidnapped by AQIM in September 2010 while working forFrench nuclear group Areva and a subsidiary ofconstruction group Vinci in Arlit in Niger.

Any conditions of the release were not immediately clear,but, speaking to French television on Tuesday on his arrival inNiamey to collect the men and take them home, Foreign MinisterLaurent Fabius denied the government had paid a ransom.

A regional official close to the negotiations said MohamedAkotey, a former Nigerien minister, who had been chairman of theboard of Imouraren, a new mine Areva is building in northernNiger, had led the negotiations for the past year.

Regional weekly magazine Jeune Afrique citing senior Nigersources said Atokey and the head of Niger's intelligenceservices had travelled by helicopter on Tuesday to northern Maliafter receiving a green light from the hostage takers.

"(It has been) three years of suffering for these citizenswho have been held by jailers without scruples and three yearsof suffering for the families who have lived hell and today arerelieved," French President Francois Hollande told a speciallyconvened news conference during a visit to Slovakia.

Visibly tired, dressed in green Tuareg robes and a blueturban, and with a long beard, a smiling Thierry Dol said thethree years in captivity had been extremely difficult.

"It's an ordeal of a lifetime," he told reporters at Niameyairport.

Hollande thanked Niger President Mohamadou Issoufou, who hesaid had obtained the release of the hostages.

"They were in northern Mali and we succeeded in bringingthem back to Niger," Issoufou said.


Paris launched air strikes and sent hundreds of soldiersinto Niger's neighbour Mali at the start of the year to driveback al Qaeda-linked rebels it said could turn the West Africancountry into a base for international attacks.

The insurgents have threatened to hit French targets acrossthe Sahel region in revenge. AQIM said in March they hadbeheaded one hostage they held and warned that they could killthe others. His body was found in July.

The men's release gave Hollande a boost just a day after apoll showed he had become the most unpopular French president onrecord, with the Socialist leader hit by anger over tax hikes,unemployment and rows over the government's immigration policy.

The men are due to travel back to Paris early on Wednesday.

"The president told us they are in good health," ReneRobert, grandfather of Legrand, said on i-tele. "I never doubtedPierre could hold on but we didn't know how long things wouldlast, and it is true that at some point he could have worn out."

There was no news about the fate of three other men - aSwede, Dutch and South African - who were also held by AQIM. Twoother French nationals are also still being held after beingtaken by armed groups in Mali.

Hollande has said Paris has ended a policy of paying ransomsfor hostages, but suspicion that it still does despite officialdenials has been a source of tension with the United States.

France brushed off an allegation by a former U.S. diplomatthat it paid a $17 million ransom in vain for the release of thethree hostages abducted in 2010 from Niger.

But Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram was paid an equivalentof around $3.15 million by French and Cameroonian negotiatorsbefore freeing seven French hostages in April, a confidentialNigerian government report seen by Reuters showed.

Hollande told the family of the Sahel hostages in Januarythat the new policy also meant that he had told companies andinsurance firms to not pay ransoms.

Five other French nationals are held overseas - one inNigeria and four in Syria.

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