The last French hostage held by Islamic extremists in Africa has been released after more than three years in captivity, French President François Hollande said Tuesday.
While details of the release remain unclear – including whether or not a ransom was paid – it stands in sharp contrast to the failed US rescue attempt of an American hostage in Yemen on Saturday. American photojournalist Luke Somers died in that raid, along with South African Pierre Korkie.
Mr. Hollande said in a statement that the former French hostage, Serge Lazarevic, was “relatively healthy, despite the very harsh conditions of his long captivity.”
“We no longer have any hostages in any country of the world, and we should not have any,” Hollande said. He thanked Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, for helping secure the release of Lazarevic, who is en route to Niger.
The French businessman was kidnapped by Al Qaeda’s North African branch, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, from a hotel in central Mali in November 2011 along with a French geologist, Philippe Verdon. The group later killed Mr. Verdon “in retaliation” for a French military operation launched in Mali in January 2013, France 24 reports.
French authorities repeatedly maintain that they do not pay ransoms to kidnappers. But, as France 24 reports, France and other European countries “are widely known to use intermediaries to pay million-dollar ransoms to militants in exchange for the release of their nationals.”
France has provided $58 million in ransom payments since 2008, the most of any country, according to a New York Times investigation published in July. Other payers include Switzerland and Spain at $12.4 million and $5.9 million, respectively.
Kidnapping Europeans for ransom has become a global business for Al Qaeda, bankrolling its operations across the globe.
While European governments deny paying ransoms, an investigation by The New York Times found that Al Qaeda and its direct affiliates have taken in at least $125 million in revenue from kidnappings since 2008, of which $66 million was paid just last year.
The United States and Britain have apparently refused to pay any ransoms, arguing that payments to kidnappers only perpetuate a costly and violent cycle.
"Ransom payments lead to future kidnappings, and future kidnappings lead to additional ransom payments. And it all builds the capacity of terrorist organizations to conduct attacks," David Cohen, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department, said in 2012, according to The Washington Post.
Critics of ransom payments point out that last year there were more French hostages around the world than any other nationality. At one point, Islamic militants in West Africa held at least 14 French nationals, the BBC reports.
The debate over how to secure the release of hostages has intensified this year in the wake of high-profile cases and gruesome beheadings by the self-described Islamic State.
While the US strongly condemns ransom payments, its preferred method of using special forces to free hostages carries its own risks. The Navy Seals raid in Yemen on Sunday provides the most recent example: The raid not only left American photojournalist Mr. Somers dead but also led to the death of Mr. Korkie, a South African aid worker.
Korkie’s family and Gift of Givers, the organization he worked for, had arranged for his release by Al Qaeda's Yemen branch on Sunday after months of negotiations. The US has said it wasn't aware that the two men were being held together.