Taliban freed French hostages 'for prisoners and money'

Herve Ghesquiere (R) and Stephane Taponier received a warm welcome back in France

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One of two French hostages freed by the Taliban in Afghanistan says he believes there was an exchange deal involving money and prisoners.

Herve Ghesquiere, a TV reporter, told the BBC he had no proof of this, but said he and cameraman Stephane Taponier had not been released after 18 months in captivity "for chocolates".

The Taliban have also said several of their members were freed from prison.

But the Afghan government has denied any prisoner exchange took place.

The French government insisted no ransom was paid for its citizens.

Mr Ghesquiere and Mr Taponier were kidnapped with interpreter Reza Din in Kapisa province in December 2009. All three were released on Wednesday.

'Isolated'

The French authorities have remained silent about what triggered their release after lengthy negotiations, but Mr Ghesquiere said the Taliban had been promised "money and at least two prisoners".

Start Quote

France was forced to accept the conditions put forward by the Islamic Emirate”

End Quote Zabiullah Mujahid Taliban spokesman

"I don't have any proof. Officially, there was no ransom. But of course, it was not for chocolates," he told the BBC World Service.

He said their captors did not say why they were being held, but that it "was clear in the beginning" that they wanted to exchange them.

"The negotiations were very long," he explained. "You have many Taliban commanders, many different small power brokers in the region.

"We were in Kapisa - the French army sector - and it was very difficult for the French secret services to negotiate. I am sure, because we are alive... that they did great, great work, but it was very, very long.

"After 15 June, we felt something [was going to happen]. We moved a lot - before then we stayed in the same house. We talked to the Taliban and they said: 'Yes, something is going on.' We were very optimistic."

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that the French government had tried to get the journalists released "through the use of force... but their efforts proved futile and the enemy was forced to retreat suffering heavy casualties".

"Finally, France was forced to accept the conditions put forward by the Islamic Emirate [the Taliban] and agreed to an exchange in return for the release of a number of mujahideen leaders."

Mr Ghesquiere also described the ordeal that saw him become one of the longest-held Western hostages in Afghanistan.

"We were captured at the very end of December 2009. We were together for three-and-a-half months. Then we were separated. I was completely alone for eight months - between mid-April and mid-December last year.

"It was complicated to be so isolated, confined in a room only 12 sq metres [130 square feet]."

He said he listened to the BBC World Service "almost every day", and that it had been his "only link between our room and the external world".

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