Four Frenchmen landed safely back in Paris Wednesday morning after spending three years as hostages of al-Qaida somewhere in the badlands of the North African sahel.
The circumstances remain unclear surrounding the release of Pierre Legrand, Thierry Dol, Marc Feret and Daniel Larribe, all workers at the French state-run nuclear company Areva's uranium mine in Arlit, Niger. A French official retrieved the men in northern Mali on Tuesday amid conflicting reports of whether Areva or France paid ransom to al-Qaida.
It also remains unclear why the men were first taken captive. France deployed drones to the region at almost this time exactly last year in the hopes of finding its citizens taken hostage. Months later France would deploy troops and commandos to Mali to beat back a swell of al-Qaida fighters who advanced southward from their northern strongpoints.
The men had a tearful reunion with their families on a military-base tarmac outside Paris early Wednesday.
Alain Legrand told French television he was excited by his son's release but would be looking for explanations.
"My son is 28. He's spent more than one of out every 10 days of his life in captivity. I would like someone to explain to me why," he said.
A representative handling the case of the four hostages said he had been told Areva paid ransom to the al-Qaida militants holding the men. French President Francois Hollande, who greeted the men in person, reiterated French policy of not paying ransom to hostage-takers. An Areva press officer said the same.
Islamic extremists are increasingly operating throughout these badlands that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
Somali fighters from al-Shabab, now an affiliate of al-Qaida, have twice repelled commando raids from western nations. A team from SEAL Team Six were unable to complete a snatch-and-grab mission of a suspected al-Shabab leader earlier in October. Al-Shabab posted pictures on Twitter in January of what they claimed were French commandos they killed after an unsuccessful mission.
Also in January, a militant leader claiming to fight for al-Qaida took hostages from 10 different countries at a natural gas complex in Algeria, forcing a standoff with Western nations.