French family head for home after hostage ordeal

French President Francois Hollande will be waiting to welcome a family of seven released after being held by an Islamist group in Nigeria for two months, when they fly into to Paris early Saturday.

The Moulin-Fournier family took off from Cameroon late on Friday accompanied by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who flew out to meet them in Yaounde earlier in the day. The family also met Cameroon President Paul Biya on Friday.

Hollande was to meet the freed hostages at Paris's Orly airport when they arrive in the early hours, his office said.

The government has not so far shed any light on how their release was secured -- except to say that no ransom was paid and there was no military operation to free them.

Tanguy and Albane Moulin-Fournier, their four children and Tanguy's brother, Cyril, were kidnapped in Cameroon on February 19 and taken to neighbouring Nigeria.

Their captors were from the Boko Haram group, an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist sect blamed for a string of deadly attacks since 2009 in an insurgency in northern Nigeria.

But on Thursday night, in a surprise development, all seven were handed over to Cameroonian authorities. They were thinner and exhausted but otherwise in good health.

"We are all very tired but normal life will now resume," Tanguy said in the capital Yaounde. "The conditions in which we were held were very difficult, It was extremely hot. But we did not have any serious problems.

"We are alive and we are infinitely happy to be free.

"It has been very long and difficult, it was hard psychologically and we had some very low moments. But we stuck together and that was crucial. As a family, we kept each other's spirits up."

Fabius said they had been freed overnight "in an area between Nigeria and Cameroon".

Hollande insisted that France had paid no ransom and his aides said the liberation of the hostages had not involved the use of force.

"It was by being as discreet as possible that we were able to be effective," said Hollande. He thanked the Cameroonian and Nigerian authorities for their help in the affair.

The family's abduction occurred as France was deploying thousands of troops to fight Islamic extremists in Mali, another former French colony in the region.

At least seven other French citizens are being held hostage by various militants in the Sahel region south of the Sahara.

The Moulin-Fournier family were visiting the Waza National Park in northern Cameroon, near the border with Nigeria, when they were kidnapped.

Tanguy Moulin-Fournier worked for the French gas group GDF Suez in Yaounde. He and his wife, and their four sons, Eloi, Andeol, Mael and Clarence, had been based there since 2011. Cyril Moulin-Fournier was visiting from Barcelona.

News of their release was greeted with an outpouring of joy from friends and family in France.

"We have been drinking champagne and reading the gospel," said Edouard Leconte, the priest in Albane's home village of Regnie-Durette, in the heart of the Beaujolais wine region in eastern France. "It's a really profound joy."

Tanguy and Cyril's brother Nicolas said news of the release had come completely out of the blue.

"The family is extremely relieved. We heard the rumour via the media and the foreign ministry confirmed it almost immediately. We had heard nothing to make us think a release was imminent."

Boko Haram has in the past called for the creation of an Islamic state in Nigeria, where corruption is deeply rooted and most of the population lives on less than $2 per day despite vast oil reserves.

The Boko Haram insurgency is estimated to have left more than 3,000 people dead since 2009, including many killed in operations by the security services.

The group is believed to be made up of many different factions, some of them hardcore Islamists who would resist any concessions to Nigeria's secular government.

Armed Islamist groups in Africa still hold at least seven French nationals: six of them are in the hands of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

An eighth hostage was reported executed last March in Mali by AQIM, but his death has not been confirmed.