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4 French journalists freed in Syria give reason for hope

Their release follows that of Spanish journalists in March. Taken together, the two releases could signal a change of tactics by kidnappers in Syria.

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French journalists Pierre Torres (left) and Nicolas Henin (right) were among those freed in Syria, April 19, 2014. (Screengrab)

Four French journalists taken hostage in Syria last year were freed on Saturday after a 10-month ordeal in the world's most dangerous country for the media.

Their release follows that of three Spanish journalists in March. El Mundo Middle East correspondent Javier Espinosa and freelance photographer Ricardo García Vilanova, who were released March 30, had been kidnapped last year by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISI), an Al-Qaeda-linked group. Marc Marginedas, who reported for a Catalan newspaper, was released March 3.

Taken all together, the two releases could signal a change in tactics by the ISI, which has in recent months engaged in internecine fighting with other rebel and jihadist groups battling the government of President Bashar al Assad.

GlobalPost correspondent James Foley was kidnapped in northern Syria on Thanksgiving Day 2012 and remains missing.

Hollande announces journalists' release

French President Francois Hollande announced the release of the four French journalists — Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres — saying they were "in good health despite the very challenging conditions of their captivity."

"I share the joy of the families of our compatriots who have endured ... the fear of this trying time," Hollande said.

Turkish soldiers found the four men abandoned in no-man's land on the border with Syria overnight, wearing blindfolds and with their hands bound, the Turkish news agency Dogan reported.

They had been captured in two separate incidents in June last year while covering the conflict in Syria.

Footage of the journalists broadcast on Turkish television showed them looking unkempt, with beards and long hair, but they appeared to be in good health.

"I'm very happy to be free," said 53-year-old Francois. "We thank the Turkish authorities because they really helped us. And it's very nice to see the sky, to be able to walk and to be able to speak freely."

The Turkish soldiers initially took them for smugglers but took them to a police station in the small town of Akcakle near the border when they realized they were speaking French.

Francois, a highly respected and experienced war reporter for Europe 1 radio, and photographer Elias, 23, were taken north of the main northern Syrian city of Aleppo on June 6.

Henin, a 37-year-old reporter for Point magazine, and freelance photographer Torres, 29, were seized two weeks later also in the north of the country, at Raqqa.

The four men are expected to arrive in France later Saturday or early Sunday to an immense outpouring of joy and relief.

"We don't know what to say, we are very happy obviously, but we are completely overwhelmed," Elias's grandmother Josette Dunand told AFP.

Henin's father Pierre-Yves Henin told AFP the men were "about to get on a plane to come back," and that their morale was "particularly good."

He told BFM-TV the family had been aware of recent "contacts," and had hoped they would "prove fruitful," but that the news that his son was free was nonetheless a surprise.

Syria the most dangerous place for journalists

Around 30 foreign journalists covering the Syrian civil war have been seized since the conflict began in March 2011, and many are still missing.

GlobalPost's own James Foley was intercepted approximately 20 miles from the Turkish border by a group of armed men in November 2012. Two eyewitnesses provided details of his kidnapping. He remains missing.

Foley reported for GlobalPost in Afghanistan and in Libya before covering the civil war in Syria starting in 2012. His last article for GlobalPost detailed the growing frustration with the war among civilians in Aleppo.

In the interest of Foley’s safety, GlobalPost has not released details of the ongoing investigation to secure his freedom since a statement made in October 2013.

Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/syria/140419/french-journalists-freed-syria-james-foley-ISI