French Journalist Held in Iraq Returns Home

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(AP) A French journalist held hostage in Iraq for five months returned home Sunday, looking radiant and strong as she described months of captivity in a cellar, tied up and blindfolded.

Florence Aubenas, a 43-year-old reporter for the French newspaper Liberation, spent the first minutes of her homecoming embracing her family, then spoke to reporters in a strong, firm voice and in obvious good humour. Aubenas’ Iraqi assistant was also freed.

The French journalist said she had been unbound recently and allowed to watch French television. She was moved to see a news ticker counting off her 140th day of captivity. “You’re so happy to see that, when you’re all crouched over on the ground,” she said. “That’s why it was so important to me to thank absolutely everybody here.”

Aubenas looked relaxed and joked as she answered questions from reporters. One asked, “How do you feel?”

“Much better,” she responded, laughing. She provided no information about the identity of her kidnappers and no details about her release.

President Jacques Chirac, who was among those to greet Aubenas at an airstrip in Villacoublay, west of Paris, where her plane landed, also gave no details.

Former foreign minister Michel Barnier, who worked on the case until leaving the government this month, said France paid no ransom, and Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie thanked officials in the DGSE spy agency.

In Baghdad, Aubenas’ Iraqi assistant Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi received a hero’s welcome – hugs and kisses from more than 60 relatives and friends. A band of trumpets played Arab tunes and a sheep was slaughtered to celebrate his homecoming.

A few hundred supporters celebrated Sunday night at Place de la Republique square in eastern Paris by taking down giant photos of the two captives that had hung there to mobilize support.

Aubenas and her assistant had been missing since Jan. 5 and were last seen leaving her hotel in the Iraqi capital. French officials have never identified the kidnappers, though authorities in both France and Iraq suggested they were probably seeking money rather than pressing a political agenda.

Each day, Liberation and many other media printed a count of how many days Aubenas and her guide had been captive.

The first and last public sign that Aubenas was alive came in a videotape – apparently recorded by her captors – that emerged March 1. She looked pale and pleaded for help.

Many questions remained about her time in captivity. Three Romanian journalists who were held in Iraq for nearly two months said they were kept for 51 days in a cellar alongside Aubenas.

The Romanians were freed May 22 by a group that identified itself as Maadh Bin Jabal. But asked whether she was held with the Romanians at one point, Aubenas responded “no” and did not elaborate.

Liberation’s editorial director Antoine de Gaudemar said he could not explain the discrepancy.

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