France alleged to have paid €25m to free Mali hostages
Paris was accused yesterday of paying around €25m for four hostages held by Islamist rebels in Mali, despite president Francois Hollande refusing all ransom deals.
After more than three years in captivity in remote mountains on the Mali-Algerian frontier, the four French mining engineers returned to Paris yesterday to an emotional greeting from their families and President Hollande.
The men, who appeared strained but well, refused to speak to the waiting press.
The French government spokesman and the foreign and defence ministers denied that any ransom had been paid, despite detailed reports by the newspaper 'Le Monde' and the news agency 'Agence France-Press', both quoting sources in the French intelligence services and the Niger government.
Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dol and Marc Feret were seized with three other French citizens from a uranium mining camp in Niger in September 2010.
According to the official version of events, they were freed on Tuesday following negotiations involving the president of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou.
France has often been reported to have paid ransoms in the past, including a reported €13m handed over by former president Nicolas Sarkozy's government for three other hostages seized in Niger in 2010, including Mr Larribe's wife, Francoise.
Earlier this year, during France's successful military campaign against extremist Islamist groups in Mali, president Hollande pledged that his government would refuse all payments which helped to sustain such rebellions.
The government's official spokeswoman, Najat Vallaud- Belkacem, insisted yesterday this policy was unchanged.
Earlier, the foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said: "France does not pay ransoms."
But the website of 'Le Monde' carried a very different account yesterday, based on sources within the French external intelligence service, the DGSE.
It described months of negotiations between the French and Niger governments, culminating in an eight-day trek by 18 French agents and Tuareg helpers into the Mali mountains last week.
'Le Monde' said that €20m-€25m was handed to this "convoy" from the secret funds of the DGSE. It was arranged, through a senior Niger official, that the four hostages would be brought from their separate places of captivity and left alone with food and water in the desert.
Once the money had been handed to an intermediary, the rebels provided the French agents with a GPS address of the hostages' location. Sources within the Niger government told 'Agence France Presse' that up to €25m was paid.
Francoise Larribe, freed in 2011, spoke yesterday of a "tsunami of joy" at being reunited with her husband.
"It as if we had resumed a conversation that we broke off a few days ago," she said. (©Independent News Service)