France has said that four of its hostages held by al Qaeda's north African wing have been freed and are on their way home. Paris denied that it had either paid a ransom or launched a military assault to free them.
President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday that four French hostages who were kidnapped in Niger three years ago have been freed.
The hostages - Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dol and Marc Feret - were taken by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in September 2010.
"[It has been] three years of suffering for these citizens who have been held by jailers without scruples and three years of suffering for the families who have lived hell and today are relieved," Hollande told reporters while on a visit to Slovakia.
"I want to express my gratitude to Niger's president, who was able to obtain the release of our countrymen," Hollande added.
The French Foreign Office said the men, all believed to be in good health, had arrived in the capital, Niamey, and were expected to travel back to France on Wednesday.
Although the conditions for the release were not immediately apparent, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius denied that any ransom had been paid. He said the hostages were "in good shape" now that "the nightmare is over."
AQIM had demanded at least 90 million euros ($124 million) for the release of the three hostages.
'No raid took place'
Minister of Defence Jean-Yves Le Drian also denied that a ransom had been paid and that it had been down to a process of negotiation, adding that no military action had been taken.
"There was no assault. There was an initiative taken by the networks of [Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou] which permitted a liberation without clashes," Le Drian told the French television network TF1.
The four - who range in age from 28 to 62 - had been working for the French nuclear firm Areva and a subsidiary of the construction group Vinci. They were kidnapped from a uranium compound in Arlit, in north-central Niger.
The four were said to have been taken for some time to northern Mali, which had been occupied for several months by Islamist militants.
Three other people who were kidnapped at the time, Laribbe's wife Francoise as well as a Togolese citizen and a Madagascan, were all freed in February 2011.
While Hollande has officially ended a policy of paying ransoms, suspicions remain that it still goes on and are a source of tension between Paris and Washington.
(AFP, AP, dpa)