PARIS – French journalist Florence Aubenas (search) and her Iraqi assistant have been freed and are in good health after nearly five months in captivity in Iraq, officials said Sunday.
Aubenas, a veteran reporter for the left-leaning Liberation newspaper, was heading home to France (search) and was expected to arrive at a Paris-area airport toward the end of the day. "We are mad with joy," the reporter's sister, Sylvie, told France-Info radio.
France's ambassador to Iraq (search), Bernard Bajolet, said Aubenas and Iraqi Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi were released Saturday and were in good health and high spirits. The ambassador did not say who had been holding the hostages or how they were handed over to French authorities, but he stressed that no ransom was paid.
"The first thing she told me was 'happy new year' because the last time we met was for Christmas at my house in Baghdad," Bajolet said. "She had lost some kilos [pounds] but was still so witty. She is a very impressive, strong person."
President Jacques Chirac went on television to thank French officials for "difficult, often dangerous" efforts to free the hostages. He said Aubenas was healthy and heading home.
"At the end of a long, painful, 157-day captivity that was shared by all French people, they will at last return to their families and loved ones, and I want to tell them of our joy," Chirac said. The government did not provide details of their release.
The Baghdad airport had been closed for two days because of a sandstorm, but Iraqi authorities made an exception to allow Aubenas' plane to leave, Bajolet said.
Al-Saadi returned home to southeastern Baghdad, where family and friends danced to a trumpet-led band and slaughtered a sheep to mark his homecoming.
The two had been missing since Jan. 5 and were last seen leaving Aubenas' hotel in the Iraqi capital. French officials have never identified the kidnappers, though authorities in both France and Iraq suggested they were probably seeking money rather than pressing a political agenda.
A Romanian journalist who was held in Iraq for nearly two months gave more clues Sunday.
Ovidiu Ohanesian, a reporter for the daily Romania Libera, told The Associated Press that he and two other Romanian reporters were kept for 51 days in a cellar alongside Aubenas.
"We managed to whisper together in English," Ohanesian said. "I have total admiration for Florence. She is the strongest person I have ever met."
The Romanians were freed May 22 by a group that identified itself as Maadh Bin Jabal.
Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie thanked officials in the DGSE spy agency for their efforts in freeing Aubenas
Aubenas' January abduction came just weeks after the release of two other French reporters, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who were held captive for four months until Dec. 21.
The first and last public sign that Aubenas was alive came in a videotape — apparently recorded by her captors — that emerged on March 1. She looked pale and pleaded for help.
Aubenas' supporters in France, where the U.S.-led war in Iraq was widely opposed, organized constant concerts, rallies, balloon launches and torch-lit vigils. Each day, Liberation newspaper's cover had a count of how many days Aubenas and her guide had been captive.
Signs of optimism came last week when her newspaper said French authorities had established "stable contact" with the kidnappers through an intermediary.
Liberation's editorial director Antoine de Gaudemar said the release brought "the end of a nightmare."
"Apparently, she was well treated, as well as one can be under the circumstances," De Gaudemar told LCI television. "She suffered no ill treatment or harassment."
A celebration of the release was planned Sunday night at Place de la Republique in eastern Paris, where giant pictures of the captives hang.
Jacqueline Aubenas, the reporter's mother, said family and friends would greet Aubenas at the airport near Paris "with outstretched arms, plenty of kisses and plenty of tears."
"I thought I knew what the word happiness meant," she told France Info. "That was nothing. It's much better than I thought."
More than 200 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq; more than 30 of them were slain by their captors.