PARIS (AP) — Two French journalists held hostage in Afghanistan since December 2009 were freed Wednesday in good health, bringing cheers and joyful tears in France which has been united in its campaign to bring the two men home.
Stephane Taponier and Herve Ghesquiere, in captivity for nearly 550 days, were freed along with the journalists' translator, Reza Din, authorities said.
Two other Afghans held with them were freed earlier, but nothing was said in order to keep negotiations on track, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said.
The newly freed journalists were to due to in France on Thursday at Vilacoublay military airport outside Paris at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT).
Champagne corks popped at France-3, the TV channel where the two Frenchmen worked, and banners hung in a campaign to get them home were being taken down.
"We are happy .... It's a great moment to see their families explode with joy," France-3 executive editor Thierry Thuillier said.
Ghesquiere, 47, and Taponier, 46, were kidnapped together with three Afghan associates while working on a story about reconstruction on a road east of Kabul. They had been embedded with French troops in Afghanistan, but decided to take off for reporting on their own and were captured.
The Taliban said the insurgency movement was holding them and made a set of demands — never fully published — in exchange for the men's freedom.
French officials quickly moved to quash questions about whether a ransom was paid for the men's freedom. Juppe said "France does not pay ransom." Still, speculation was widespread that the captors were compensated.
President Nicolas Sarkozy thanked "everyone who participated in freeing the hostages" and praised Afghan President Hamid Karzai for his management of the hostage situation, without providing further details.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon thanked "these men and women who worked for this liberation, often from the shadows, taking lots of risks."
The head of Reporters Without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard, who was in Afghanistan days ago, said on BFM-TV that Karzai freed some prisoners to partially fulfill a Taliban demand. The media watchdog group had been in constant communication with French authorities during the hostage situation.
Fillon said the two men were in good health and would be returning shortly to their homeland after one of France's longest hostage ordeals.
"For the past several hours our two French hostages in Afghanistan are in the hands of French forces at the Tagab base," the prime minister told legislators. "Our two hostages are in good health and will be on French soil in several hours."
Responding to reporters' questions about why it took 18 months to release the journalists, Juppe said the operation was especially complex. "We were facing an organization, rather an extremely complex disorganization, with numerous officials to be identified. We had to untangle the strings, get green lights which came from different circuits."
That the captives were held in a combat zone where French troops are operating around the Kapisa Valley made the task still more delicate, he told reporters.
Ghesquiere and cameraman Taponier are seasoned journalists. Ghesquiere specialized in war reporting, covering the Balkans conflict and doing investigative reports from around the globe, from Cambodia to the disputed Western Sahara territory. Taponier had filmed in the past in Afghanistan, notably a 2000 report on the northern commander Massoud, who was later killed.
Exactly a week ago, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said on French TV that the announcements of staggered French and American troop withdrawals might help the cause of freeing Ghesquiere and Taponier. President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of 33,000 troops by September 2012, and France followed suit, announcing it will pull out a quarter of its force of 4,000.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, had accused France on Jan. 1 of "doing nothing" to free the men. In April 2010, after posting a video of the hostages on the Internet, the Taliban said they had submitted a list of prisoners to French authorities that they wanted freed in exchange for the hostages.
With news the journalists were freed, France-3 immediately put up a thumbnail image on the upper left corner of the screen showing the two journalists' faces, with the word "FREE" in big white letters.
"We've lived for a year and a half with this weight ... and this weight has disappeared," said the President of France Television, Remy Pflimlin.
The announcement came amid an outdoor gathering of a support group headed by Florence Aubenas, a journalist who was held hostage in Iraq for 157 days and freed in 2005.
A telephone call broke the news.
"There are magic moments like that. We all fell into each others' arms," Aubenas said on France-3. "It was a moment of incredible emotion."
With a vibrant campaign launched in France on behalf of the hostages, the men's faces are familiar to many here.
The channels of France-3's umbrella group, France Televisions, have long been closing their newscasts with photos of the French journalists and a tally of the days they have been held. Paris City Hall has held rallies with giant posters of Ghesquiere and Taponier and towns have put up banners with their photos. Supporters even hoisted a banner on the top of Mont Blanc in the Alps.
Eight other French citizens remain captive: four thought to be held in Mali, one in Somalia and three aid workers captured in May in Yemen.
Sylvie Corbet and Pierre-Yves Roger contributed to this report.