VILLACOUBLAY, France — Freed hostage Florence Aubenas, looking thinner but radiant, arrived home to a joyful welcome outside Paris on Sunday after she and her Iraqi assistant were safely released from five months’ captivity in Iraq.
President Jacques Chirac greeted Aubenas with a kiss on the cheek at an airstrip in Villacoublay, west of the capital, where her flight touched down. She spent the first minutes of her homecoming embracing her family and did not immediately address reporters.
Earlier, Chirac went on television to praise officials for their efforts to free the 43-year-old French journalist and Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi.
“At the end of a long, painful, 157-day captivity that was shared by all French people, they will at last return to their families and loved ones, and I want to tell them of our joy,” Chirac said.
Aubenas’ sister Sylvie told France-Info radio: “We are mad with joy.”
“We’ve been awaiting this day for a long, long time,” her brother Olivier told The Associated Press.
Chirac did not provide details of the release, nor did a brief statement from the Foreign Ministry. But Former Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, who worked on the case until leaving the government this month, said France paid no ransom, and Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie thanked officials in the DGSE spy agency.
Aubenas’ supporters prepared a party Sunday night at Place de la Republique square in eastern Paris, where giant pictures of the former hostages hang.
Al-Saadi returned home to southeastern Baghdad, where family and friends danced to a trumpet-led band and slaughtered a sheep to mark his homecoming.
The two had been missing since Jan. 5 and were last seen leaving Aubenas’ hotel in the Iraqi capital. French officials have never identified the kidnappers, though authorities in both France and Iraq suggested they were probably seeking money rather than pressing a political agenda.
A Romanian journalist who was held in Iraq for nearly two months gave more clues Sunday. Ovidiu Ohanesian, a reporter for the daily Romania Libera, told The Associated Press that he and two other Romanian reporters were kept for 51 days in a cellar alongside Aubenas.
“We managed to whisper together in English,” Ohanesian said. “I have total admiration for Florence. She is the strongest person I have ever met.”
The Romanians were freed May 22 by a group that identified itself as Maadh Bin Jabal.
Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie thanked officials in the DGSE spy agency for their efforts in freeing Aubenas
Aubenas’ January abduction came just weeks after the release of two other French reporters, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who were held captive for four months until Dec. 21.
The first and last public sign that Aubenas was alive came in a videotape — apparently recorded by her captors — that emerged on March 1. She looked pale and pleaded for help.
Aubenas’ supporters in France, where the U.S.-led war in Iraq was widely opposed, organized constant concerts, rallies, balloon launches and torch-lit vigils. Each day, Liberation newspaper’s cover had a count of how many days Aubenas and her guide had been captive.
Signs of optimism came last week when her newspaper said French authorities had established “stable contact” with the kidnappers through an intermediary.
For an editor, ‘end of a nightmare’
Liberation’s editorial director Antoine de Gaudemar said the release brought “the end of a nightmare.”
“Apparently, she was well treated, as well as one can be under the circumstances,” De Gaudemar told LCI television. “She suffered no ill treatment or harassment.”
Jacqueline Aubenas, the reporter’s mother, said family and friends would greet Aubenas at the airport near Paris “with outstretched arms, plenty of kisses and plenty of tears.”
“I thought I knew what the word happiness meant,” she told France Info. “That was nothing. It’s much better than I thought.”
More than 200 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq; more than 30 of them were slain by their captors.
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