(Vélizy-Villacoublay) A few tears, smiles, and hugs. Olivier Dubois, a French hostage for nearly two years of jihadists in Mali, returned to France on Tuesday and was reunited with his relatives, telling AFP he had never been physically abused during his 711 days in detention.
Arrived the day before in Niamey, Niger, with the American hostage Jeffery Woodke, 61, held for his part for more than six years, the journalist was welcomed shortly after noon by his family and by President Emmanuel Macron on the base. view of Villacoublay, southwest of the capital.
Dressed in a long-sleeved T-shirt and black pants, he appeared very smiling after five hours of travel from Niamey. He found his wife and children in the process before meeting with the head of state.
“Yesterday, I couldn’t believe it when I arrived at Niamey airport,” he told AFP. “That’s it, I saw my family […] I’m free! he said, considering himself lucky not to have been “abused, humiliated or hit or anything”.
“ There were difficult times, but not physical as some have experienced”, he added in reference to Jeffery Woodke, whom he met only two days before his release.
Olivier Dubois was kidnapped on April 8, 2021 in Gao, northern Mali, by GSIM, the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel linked to Al-Qaeda. He collaborated in particular with the daily Liberation and the magazine Le Point and lived in Mali since 2015.
The 48-year-old reporter was the last known Frenchman to be held hostage by an organization other than a state.
“ I was aware of my release on March 7 ”, he explained. On the 16th, men took him on a motorbike and then in a pick-up “in what I call the airlock”, under a tree, in “the region of Kidal”, where he awaited his release.
On Monday, President Macron had expressed his “ tremendous relief ” and expressed his “ great gratitude to Niger ”. He made no public comment on Tuesday in Villacoublay.
The circumstances of the release of the two men remain unknown for the time being as relations between France and the ruling junta in Mali have deteriorated considerably. Paris notably withdrew all of the soldiers who were deployed there as part of the anti-jihadist operation Barkhane.
“I know that Niger is involved, the French services,” said Olivier Dubois only.
“What we have always been told is that the deterioration of Franco-Malian relations did not tarnish the hopes of liberation,” commented Christophe Deloire, director general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
According to the head of French diplomacy, his release was “ a priority ” for France. Catherine Colonna, however, recalled the need to remain discreet in this type of file.
“I know that our discretion is sometimes not understood. It is, however, the condition of effectiveness”, added the Minister, who also thanked “ the authorities of Niger for their decisive assistance ”.
Niamey has not yet made any comment on his role.
During his 711 days in detention, Olivier Dubois said he changed places of detention every two to four weeks. Sometimes he was able to stay longer in “open air prisons”, which brought “more comfort”, he explained.
Monday his sister, Canèle Bernard was delighted with the end of the nightmare. “He will be able to resume his life, even if it will be difficult for him to forget that,” she told AFP.
Dov Alfon, director of the daily Liberation, paid tribute on Tuesday to Olivier Dubois, member of the team of these “local and international correspondents, who are our eyes and ears” on difficult terrain.
Mali, like its neighbors Niger and Burkina Faso, is going through a serious security crisis with recurrent jihadist attacks.
Kidnappings are one of the serious dangers faced by journalists and humanitarian workers, both local and foreign, in the Sahel. Two employees of the Malian branch of the International Committee of the Red Cross kidnapped in northern Mali two weeks ago were released on Sunday.
At least three Western hostages are still being held in the Sahel: Australian surgeon Arthur Kenneth Elliott, kidnapped on January 15, 2016, and Romanian security officer Iulian Ghergut, kidnapped on April 4, 2015, both in Burkina Faso. A German cleric, Father Hans-Joachim Lohre, of whom we have not heard from since November 2022, is considered to have been kidnapped in Mali.
On Tuesday, the relatives of French people detained in Iran expressed their “relief” after the return to France of Olivier Dubois, but called not to forget the “State hostages” whose release they are asking for.