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Four French ex-hostages in Syria arrive back in France

Four French journalists held in Syria since last June have returned to France. They were met by their families, as well as President Francois Hollande.

A plane carrying Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres touched down at a military base in northern France early on Sunday before the four were transferred by helicopter to Villacoublay air base southwest of Paris. They were met there by President Francois Hollande and their families and colleagues, before undergoing medical checks.

"A huge thank you to everyone. I am very moved by your messages. Can't wait to see you again. I am ecstatic to be able to rejoin my wonderful family," Henin wrote on his Facebook page. "I took the biggest risk three days after my kidnapping, because I escaped. I spent a night in freedom running through the Syrian countryside before my kidnappers caught up with me," Henin told France 24 television. He said his captors, who he described as "a group that claims to be a jihadist movement," had moved him to about a dozen different sites during the months he was held.

Francois, an experienced war reporter for Europe 1 radio, and photographer Elias, were seized near the main northern Syrian city of Aleppo in the first week of June last year. Henin, a reporter for Le Point magazine, and freelance photographer Torres were abducted two weeks later at Raqqa, also in the north of the country. They were freed on Friday night.

"Usually we were not very well fed. But the guards came to our cell and brought us a meal that was better than the usual, and even asked if we wanted to eat more, which never happens. So we thought: something's going on. And quite rightly, as we hardly had any time to eat before they came in the next minute to say 'let's go, we're going to the border,'" Henin said.

The four men were found blindfolded and with their hands bound at the Turkish border early Saturday.

Turkish police took them for smugglers before hearing them speak French and the four were able to explain they were journalists. They were taken to police headquarters in Sanliurfa province and seen by doctors.

Neither Turkish nor French authorities said who is believed to have kidnapped the journalists, but the Turkish news agency Dogan said it was the rebel group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

jm/pfd (AFP, Reuters)

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