A French family with four young children kidnapped at gunpoint by Islamic extremists in northern Cameroon has been freed after two months of captivity in what the father described as especially harsh conditions following the group's return to safety in the Cameroonian capital.
Cameroonian television showed the family of seven - four children, their parents and their uncle - stepping off an airplane, a man who had grown a thick beard carrying the smallest child. All appeared thin, but walked steadily.
Officials from France and Cameroon offered no details on how the family was freed overnight, and it was not clear whether there were concessions to the kidnappers.
Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, an expatriate employee for a French company and father of the family, said in a brief radio interview that the group learned their release was imminent just a few hours beforehand and that their return to safety went well. Speaking hours later at the ambassador's residence of the French Embassy in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, he said the group has to "digest" their freedom before responding to questions while still "in the grip of emotions".
"It was very difficult," Mr Moulin-Fournier, now sporting a thick beard, said. "It's the end of the dry season. The heat is terrible. Water was a problem. It was difficult to hold out."
The children, who the French media reported were aged 5 to 12, fared better, he said. "Children have something in them so that they manage to hold up," he said. "Life in them flows stronger."
The seven ex-hostages were freed "in a zone between Nigeria and Cameroon," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said before departing for Yaounde to escort the family back home.
French President Francois Hollande said authorities made contact with the kidnappers through intermediaries, and negotiations intensified in recent days. He reiterated France's official policy against ransom payments.
"We use all our contacts, but remain firm on our principles," Hollande said. "We are not changing the principle that France does not pay ransoms."
France has come under criticism over what diplomats and analysts say is an unofficial policy of indirectly paying ransoms through middlemen over the years. Vicki Huddleston, a former US ambassador to Mali, alleged that France paid a 17 million US dollar ransom to free hostages seized from a French mining site - cash she said ultimately funded the al Qaida-linked militants in Mali. French officials deny paying any ransoms.