French hostage in Nigeria escapes his jailers

PARIS/ABUJA Sun Nov 17, 2013 7:54pm GMT

France's President Francois Hollande delivers a statement to the media at the residence of Israel's President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem November 17, 2013. REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool

France's President Francois Hollande delivers a statement to the media at the residence of Israel's President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem November 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Abir Sultan/Pool

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PARIS/ABUJA (Reuters) - A French engineer who had been held hostage by Islamist militants in northern Nigeria for almost a year has escaped his jailers, President Francois Hollande said on Sunday.

"This man showed exceptional courage. At the risk of his life, he took advantage of an opportunity and then, in conditions worthy of an adventure novel, he managed to free himself," Hollande told reporters in Israel, where he is on a state visit.

Hollande gave no details about the escape, but a Nigerian police official told Reuters Francis Collomp, who is over 60, had slipped out of his cell and managed to find a motorcycle taxi which took him to a police station.

Collomp was seized when about 30 gunmen stormed his compound on December 19 in the northern Nigerian town of Rimi, close to the Niger border where al Qaeda's North African wing, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), operates.

Hollande said French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who arrived in Israel with Hollande, was flying to Nigeria to receive him.

A foreign ministry spokeswoman told Reuters Collomp was due to arrive in the military airbase of Villacoublay near Paris Monday morning around 6 am.

Nigerian Police commissioner Olufemi Adenaike told Reuters Collomp had been moved to the town of Zaria, in northern Nigeria, in the past three months and had fled from there.

"He escaped yesterday in Zaria and boarded a commercial motorcycle taxi to the nearest police station," Adenaike said.

"We handed him over to the French embassy this morning," he added.

French television showed images of a tired-looking Collomp getting into a French embassy vehicle in Nigeria.

A diplomatic source told Reuters Collomp was weak and had lost a lot of weight but was not injured.

"BRAVO, MY HUSBAND."

Collomp's wife Anne-Marie told French radio Hollande had called her to inform her her husband was free.

"I have heard that he has escaped, I say bravo my husband, bravo," she said.

In September, Collomp - an engineer at French renewable energy firm Vergnet - asked for help in a three-minute video posted on a jihadi website.

Ansaru, the militant group that kidnapped him, said soon after his abduction that he had been taken in retaliation for France's military action against jihadi insurgents in nearby Mali and its ban on wearing the full-face veil.

Britain has put Ansaru on its official "terrorist group" list, saying it is aligned with al Qaeda and was behind the kidnapping of a British national and a Italian who were killed last year during a failed rescue attempt.

The group is thought to have loose ties to the better-known Islamist militant sect Boko Haram, which has killed thousands in a four-year-long insurgency focused mostly on Nigerian security forces, religious targets and politicians.

Boko Haram and splinter groups like Ansaru pose the biggest security threat in Africa's second-biggest economy and top oil exporter, a major supplier to the Europe, Brazil and India.

Collomp's release comes just weeks after four French hostages kidnapped in Niger by AQIM, were released on October 29 after three years in captivity.

Seven other French nationals are being held hostage in Syria, Mali and Nigeria, including French priest Georges Vandenbeusch, who was kidnapped in northern Cameroon last week and is believed to be held in Nigeria.

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris, Elizabeth Pineau in Jerusalem, Tim Cocks in Lagos and Isaac Abrak in Kaduna; writing by Geert De Clercq; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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