French journalists abducted in Syria return home via Turkey

Ten months after being captured in Syria, four French journalists crossed the border into neighboring Turkey and reached France on Sunday.

Edouard Elias, Didier François, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres were freed by their captives a day earlier at the Turkish border. The four arrived by helicopter at Villacoublay Military Airport after a first touchdown at a base in nearby Evreux, where they had arrived on a special plane from Turkey. French President François Hollande saluted Turkish authorities for helping in their return.

The Dogan news agency (DHA) said soldiers on patrol found the four blindfolded and handcuffed in Turkey’s southeastern province of Şanlıurfa late on Friday. Turkish television aired images of the four at a police station and a local hospital. However, according to a report by the Milliyet daily that cited Foreign Ministry sources, the journalists crossed the Turkish border by walking through the Akçakale border crossing with Syria, contrary to what was stated in the DHA report. The Foreign Ministry reportedly said allegations that the journalists were abducted by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have not yet been verified. But Turkish news agencies have said it is highly likely that ISIL kidnapped the journalists.

“We are very happy to be free … and it’s very nice to see the sky, to be able to walk, to be able to … speak freely,” said François, a noted war correspondent for Europe 1 radio, in footage recorded by the DHA. Smiling broadly, he thanked the Turkish authorities for their help.

After the journalists’ release, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu talked with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius and journalists over the phone. Fabius reportedly thanked Davutoglu for technical and logistic cooperation on his side. French journalists also expressed their gratitude to the minister for Turkish authorities’ interest and help.

Elias, a freelance photographer, was also working for Europe 1 radio. Henin and Torres are freelance journalists.

The four went missing in June 2013 in two separate incidents. The two were taken after being interrogated by extremist ISIL fighters in the eastern province of Raqqa, said a Syrian activist who said he accompanied the journalists as a translator and guide.

Hussam al-Ahmad, 23, told The Associated Press that Henin and Torres aroused the fighters’ suspicion after they entered a school and asked to take photographs of the fighters as they played football. Ahmad said the fighters held them for about six hours. Ahmad said Henin and Torres were seized four days after the interrogation, likely by ISIL, an al-Qaeda breakaway group.

Syria is considered the world’s most dangerous assignment for journalists. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in April that 61 journalists were kidnapped in Syria in 2013, while more than 60 have been killed since the conflict began.

The widespread abductions of journalists is unprecedented, and has been largely unreported by news organizations in the hope that keeping the kidnappings out of public view may help to negotiate the captives’ release. Jihadist groups are believed to be behind most recent kidnappings.

Christophe Deloire, director-general of Reporters Without Borders, told BFM TV the four French journalists were kept in the same place as recently freed Spanish journalists and others. He did not elaborate.