Tired but smiling, a French family of seven arrived in Paris early on Saturday, welcomed by relatives and French President Francois Hollande following their release from two months of captivity by Islamist militants in Nigeria.
The Moulin-Fournier family, which includes four boys aged between five and 12, flew in from Cameroon on a French government Falcon jet with Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius.
Blankets draped over their shoulders against the early-morning chill and smiling broadly, they stepped off the plane and into the arms of relatives before retiring to the airport’s VIP pavilion.
“It’s over, we made it,” said Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, the father. “I am very happy to be back in France, it’s a great moment.”
The French president declared: “Today, life has won.”
“France, as a family, is relieved and happy,” Hollande said. “We are overcome with joy.”
The former hostages took off from the Cameroonian capital Yaounde late on Friday, having earlier met President Paul Biya.
The French 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.
“The French authorities carried out their duty discreetly,” Hollande said at the airport, thanking Cameroon and Nigeria for their help in resolving the crisis “with a special thought for Paul Biya… who played an important role these past few days.”
Tanguy and Albane Moulin-Fournier, their four children and Tanguy’s brother, Cyril, were kidnapped in Cameroon on February 19 while visiting a national park in the north of the country.
The Moulin-Fourniers had been in Cameroon since 2011, following Tanguy’s posting to the country by his GDF Suez employer. His brother Cyril had come to visit the family from his home in Spain.
Following their abduction, the hostages were taken to neighbouring Nigeria and were held by Boko Haram, an Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group blamed for a string of deadly attacks since 2009 in an insurgency in northern Nigeria.
But on Thursday night, in a surprise development, they were handed over to the Cameroonian authorities, 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 up each other’s spirits.”
Fabius said they had been freed overnight “in an area between Nigeria and Cameroon”.
Hollande has insisted that France had paid no ransom and his aides said the liberation of the hostages had not involved the use of force.
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.
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.