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Apr 19, 11:12 AM EDT

4 French journalists held hostage in Syria freed


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PARIS (AP) -- Four French journalists held hostage in Syria for 10 months have been released, officials said Saturday, the latest batch of reporters to be freed in what has become the world's deadliest conflict for the media.

President Francois Hollande's office said in a statement that he felt "immense relief" over the release of Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres - all said to be in good health in neighboring Turkey despite the "very trying conditions" of their captivity.

"We are very happy to be free ... and it's very nice to see the sky, to be able to walk, to be able to ... speak freely," said Francois, who works for Europe 1 radio, in footage recorded by the private Turkish news agency DHA as the journalists left a police station.

Elias, a freelance photographer, also was working for Europe 1 radio. Henin and Torres are freelance journalists.

A DHA report said soldiers on patrol found the four blindfolded and handcuffed in Turkey's southeast Sanliurfa province late Friday.

Turkish television also aired images of the four at the police station and then a local hospital.

It wasn't clear whether a ransom had been paid for their release, nor which group in Syria's chaotic 3-year-old conflict held the men. In his statement, Hollande thanked "all those" who contributed to the journalists' release without elaborating. Longstanding French practice is to name a specific country that contributed to hostage releases. France denies it pays ransom to free its hostages.

Hollande's office said the four would return soon to France. It did not provide details about the conditions of their release.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in a statement that freedom for the hostages "was the result of long, difficult, precise, and necessarily discrete work."

Journalists around France rejoiced at the news of their colleagues' liberation.

The four went missing in June 2013 in two incidents. Press freedom advocate Reporters Without Borders has called Syria "the most dangerous country in the world" for journalists. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said in April that 61 journalists were kidnapped in Syria in 2013, while more than 60 have been killed since the conflict began.

The widespread abductions of journalists is unprecedented, and has been largely unreported by news organizations in the hope that keeping the kidnappings out of public view may help to negotiate the captives' release. Jihadi groups are believed to be behind most kidnappings in Syria since 2013.

At least two of the French journalists were taken after being interrogated by extremist fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in the eastern province of Raqqa, said a Syrian activist who said he accompanied the journalists as translator and guide.

Hussam al-Ahmad, 23, told The Associated Press that Henin and Torres aroused the fighters' suspicion after he and the two journalists entered a school and asked to take photographs of them as they played football. Al-Ahmad said the fighters held them for about six hours.

During his interrogation, al-Ahmad said he was asked: "How do you let these infidels enter Syria after they killed our people in Mali?" France launched a military intervention in January 2013 in Mali that scattered Islamic extremists who had taken over the country's north.

"I said, `These brothers are reporters. They have a humanitarian message,' and then he got angry because I referred to the Frenchmen as my brothers," al-Ahmad said.

Al-Ahmad said Henin and Torres were seized four days after the interrogation, likely by the Islamic State, an al-Qaida breakaway group.

Al-Ahmad, who fled to Turkey months ago after being threatened by jihadis, said he burst into tears when he heard of the journalists' release.

"It's a day of celebration for me," he said.

Violence continued Saturday in Syria, as rebel car bombings killed at least 10 people, officials and activists said. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one car bomb killed at least four people in the city of Homs, in an area dominated by Alawites - the same sect as President Bashar Assad. State-run television also reported the bombing but did not immediately have a death toll.

Earlier in the day, another car bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint near the government-controlled town of Salamiya, killing at least six soldiers, activists said. A Syrian government official confirmed the bombing but said four people were killed and nine were wounded. Conflicting death tolls are routine after such attacks. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak to journalists.

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Hadid reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Jamey Keaten and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

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