YAOUNDE, Cameroon (AP) — A French family with four young children kidnapped at gunpoint by Islamic extremists in northern Cameroon was freed after two months of captivity in what the father described as especially harsh conditions following the group's return Friday to safety in the Cameroonian capital.
Cameroonian television showed the family of seven — four children, their parents and their uncle — stepping off an airplane, a man who had grown a thick beard carrying the smallest child. All appeared thin, but walked steadily.
Officials from France and Cameroon offered no details on how the family was freed overnight, and it was not clear whether there were concessions to the kidnappers.
Tanguy Moulin-Fournier, an expatriate employee for a French company and father of the family, said in a brief radio interview that the group learned their release was imminent just a few hours beforehand and that their return to safety went well.
Speaking hours later at the ambassador's residence of the French Embassy in Yaounde, Cameroon's capital, he said the group has to "digest" their freedom before responding to questions while still "in the grip of emotions."
"It was very difficult," Moulin-Fournier, now sporting a thick beard, said. "It's the end of the dry season. The heat is terrible. Water was a problem. It was difficult to hold out."
The children, who the French media reported were aged 5 to 12, fared better, he said.
"Children have something in them so that they manage to hold up," he said. "Life in them flows stronger."
The seven ex-hostages were freed "in a zone between Nigeria and Cameroon," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.
"It's a day of happiness, extraordinary happiness, for all French people to know that the Moulin-Fournier family is finally free, safe and sound," he said late Friday in a ceremony held in the Cameroonian capital before he was due to escort the family back to France.
"All hostage-takings are strongly felt in France, but this one was perhaps felt more because it concerned a big family with little kids."
French President Francois Hollande said authorities made contact with the kidnappers through intermediaries, and negotiations intensified in recent days. He reiterated France's official policy against ransom payments.
"We use all our contacts, but remain firm on our principles," Hollande said. "We are not changing the principle that France does not pay ransoms."
France has come under criticism over what diplomats and analysts say is an unofficial policy of indirectly paying ransoms through middlemen over the years. Vicki Huddleston, a former U.S. ambassador to Mali, alleged that France paid a $17 million ransom to free hostages seized from a French mining site — cash she said ultimately funded the al-Qaida-linked militants in Mali. French officials deny paying any ransoms.
Fabius, like Hollande, stressed the need for discretion in working to free hostages. The minister thanked Cameroonian President Paul Biya and the Nigerian head of state.
"The Cameroonian people and I are filled with great relief and great joy to see you free," Biya told the three freed adults who attended a ceremony in the capital late Friday.
The Feb. 19 kidnapping in northern Cameroon near the Nigerian border came as thousands of French troops were deeply involved in a military intervention against Islamic extremists in the west African country of Mali. The French statement recalled that eight other French citizens are still being held hostage in the Sahel region of Africa.
Moulin-Fournier is an employee of the French gas group GDF Suez and worked in Yaounde.
"We were not involved in any negotiations but we knew that French authorities were very active," Gerard Mastrallet, the head of GDF, said in an interview with RTL radio.
Last month, a video surfaced showing a man who appeared to be Moulin-Fournier. The man said his family was in the custody of the Islamic radical sect known as Boko Haram which wants all its members freed, especially women and children held in Nigerian and Cameroonian custody.
Boko Haram has been waging a campaign of bombings and shootings across Nigeria's north. They are held responsible for more than 790 deaths last year, and dozens more since the beginning of this year.
Moulin-Fournier had said his family was not doing well in captivity.
"We lose force (strength) every day and start to be sick; we will not stay very long like this," he said in the recording.
Neither Nigeria nor Cameroon reported any Boko Haram members were freed.
Brig. Gen. Chris Olukolade, a Nigerian defense ministry spokesman, told The Associated Press on Friday that the release followed a "meticulous collaboration between the Nigerian security forces and French counterparts, as well as others." However, he declined to offer any other information.
"I can only inform you that we collaborated," he said.
Nigerian presidential spokesman Reuben Abati and a spokeswoman for Nigeria's domestic spy agency also declined to comment. However, it appeared Nigerian authorities were caught off-guard by the announcement.
Lori Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Sylvie Corbet in Paris and Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.