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Mystery ‘operation’ frees French scribe

Paris, June 12 (Reuters): A French journalist held hostage in Iraq for five months arrived in France today after what the French ambassador said had been a “dangerous operation” to bring her home.

Florence Aubenas, a 44-year-old reporter for French newspaper Liberation, smiled as she stepped out of a government plane at Villacoublay airport outside Paris. She was greeted by President Jacques Chirac and her family.

Aubenas was released with her driver, Hussein Hanun al-Saadi, yesterday. The reporter flew to Cyprus today where she was met by French foreign minister Philippe Douste-Blazy before boarding a plane to take her to France. “She looked fine. Very happy to be free and was a bit emotional,” said Christodoulos Pashiardis, under-secretary to Cypriot President Tassos Papadopoulos.

Chirac earlier announced the release of Aubenas and her driver in a televised address. The reporter was snatched with her driver after leaving their Baghdad hotel on January 5. Little had been known about their fate since then, or the circumstances surrounding their release.

“It wasn’t easy at all. It was a dangerous operation for our people, extremely dangerous,” Bernard Bajolet, France’s ambassador in Iraq, told France Info radio.

But it was not clear under what circumstances Aubenas and her driver were freed.

Bajolet said both hostages appeared very well, though both had clearly lost weight. “I found them, in spite of their ordeal, ... to be in an extremely lively state of mind.”

A Romanian reporter, who was held hostage in Iraq for 55 days before being released last month, said for the first time today that Aubenas had been held in the same cell with her.

“Our mattresses were next to each other,” Romanian journalist Marie Jeanne said. “She was telling me all the time ‘of course we won’t die, of course we’ll get out, they won’t kill us’. If she wasn’t there, we would have gone crazy.”

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