French hostage home from Nigeria after 'daring' escape

A French engineer held hostage for 11 months by Islamist militants in Nigeria's troubled north arrived home after a dramatic escape described as worthy of an action thriller.

A plane carrying the emaciated Francis Collomp, accompanied by France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, landed early Monday at a military airport outside Paris.

The 63-year-old emerged from the plane looking extremely tired and drawn. He was met by six relatives and French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Collomp, who lost an estimated 40 kilograms in weight during his captivity but was reported to be in good spirits, was to undergo medical tests and counselling at the Val de Grace military hospital in Paris.

He will also be debriefed by agents from the DGSE, France's external intelligence agency, on his capture, detention and escape.

French President Francois Hollande compared Collomp's escape to "an adventure story", saying he was proud of his compatriot and his "exceptional courage."

Collomp was captured by Islamist militants on December 19, 2012, in the state of Katsina in northern Nigeria.

The exact circumstances of his escape remained unclear but the different versions all indicate that he bravely seized an opportunity to flee his captors.

Nigerian police said Collomp had escaped in the northern city of Zaria on Saturday while his captors were praying.

"He watched his captors' prayer time. They always prayed for 15 minutes. And yesterday they did not lock the door to his cell," said Femi Adenaike Adeleye, the police commissioner in the regional capital of Kaduna.

"While they were at prayer he sneaked out and began to run."

Another version suggested Collomp had taken advantage of a Nigerian military operation to sneak out of his unlocked cell.

He then stopped a motorcycle taxi and had it take him to the nearest police station, from where he was brought to Kaduna.

Adeleye said Collomp had been held in the city of Kano after his abduction and about two months ago brought to Zaria.

Collomp's wife Anne-Marie said Monday that she "did not recognise my husband," but added that he was "thin and tired but happy."

"He told he he had lost 40 kilos," she told BFMTV, speaking from her home on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion.

As the news broke, friends and family converged on her home, where an impromptu party broke out and Anne-Marie Collomp danced with a picture of her husband in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other.

Didier Le Bret, the head of the French foreign ministry's crisis centre, earlier told AFP Collomp was "weakened" but in good enough health to travel.

He was mentally in good shape due to the mental and physical exercises he carried out during captivity, Le Bret said.

Emotional rollercoaster for France

News of Collomp's escape came amid an emotional roller-coaster in France in the last three weeks over the fate of hostages held overseas.

The nation rejoiced in late October when four ex-hostages flew home from Niger after more than three years in captivity, but within less than a week was in mourning for two radio journalists abducted and killed by extremist rebels in Mali.

Then last week a Roman Catholic priest, 42-year-old Georges Vandenbeusch, was kidnapped in northern Cameroon and reportedly taken by Islamist militants to Nigeria.

France now has seven hostages officially being held abroad, including the priest, four journalists in Syria and two people taken in Mali.

In a statement on Collomp's release, Hollande thanked Nigerian authorities for their "decisive action" in the case.

Collomp was kidnapped by about 30 armed men who attacked the residence of French firm Vergnet, the company for which he was working, in the state of Katsina on the border with Niger.

The kidnapping, which left two bodyguards and a bystander dead, was claimed by Nigerian radical Islamist group Ansaru, which has links to extremist group Boko Haram.