December 10, 2014 / 8:04 AM / 3 years ago

France's last hostage returns home celebrating freedom

VILLACOUBLAY, France (Reuters) - France’s last hostage abroad returned home on Wednesday after three years in captivity and was welcomed by President Francois Hollande who warned citizens not to travel to high-risk zones.

French President Francois Hollande (R) and former hostage Serge Lazarevic hug each other after delivering speeches at the Villacoublay military airport, near Paris, December 10, 2014. REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen

The release of 50-year-old Serge Lazarevic, who was kidnapped by al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM in northern Mali in late 2011, was a boost for Hollande, though questions remained over how he was freed.

A beaming Lazarevic met his family and the president on the tarmac of Villacoublay airport near Paris after getting off a flight from Niger.

“Being a hostage is a bit difficult, it’s not easy. But life is beautiful, to be freed again,” Lazarevic told a waiting group of TV cameras and reporters. “I forgot what freedom is, don’t ever forget.”

“Be careful because freedom is the most priceless thing.”

Lazarevic was released on Tuesday and Hollande has denied that France any pays ransom.

Both Niger and Mali were involved in the release, said officials, but authorities provided no details of the liberation.

“Welcome, Serge Lazarevic. We’ve been waiting for you for three years. Three years you’ve suffered,” said Hollande, with the ex-hostage at his side. “You’re back. It’s a joy to welcome you back.”

Hollande mentioned Philippe Verdun, another Frenchman kidnapped alongside Lazarevic who was killed by his captors in northern Mali last year, and warned French citizens to avoid risky zones.

“Make sure you don’t go where you can be kidnapped - we’re in a dangerous world. There are zones where you shouldn’t travel ... we know the risks,” Hollande said.

Reporting By Morade Azzouz, Writing by Alexandria Sage

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