President Francois Hollande said on Tuesday that the last French citizen held hostage, a 50-year-old man seized in 2011 by al-Qaida's north African arm, had now been freed.
Serge Lazarevic was held in the Sahara by AQIM for almost three years after being kidnapped in northern Mali. He spoke Tuesday to reporters at the French embassy in Niger's capital, Niamey, alongside the president of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou. From there, Lazarevic was to head back to Paris.
"Serge Lazarevic, our last hostage, is free," Hollande told reporters in Paris earlier. "France has no more hostages, in any part of the world."
Hollande's office said in a statement that Lazarevic, described by authorities as an engineer, was in "relatively good health despite the very trying conditions of his long captivity."
It was not clear if a ransom was paid but a Malian newspaper and two sources, requesting anonymity, told Reuters several Islamist-linked militants held in Mali were freed.
"There were in all five prisoners who were exchanged for the Frenchman," said one source in northern Mali.
Alain Marsaud, a former anti-terrorism judge, now a lawmaker representing French overseas, had no doubt France paid a ransom in some form. "We managed to get prisoners from Malian or Nigerien prisons released. You have to choose.
"Either you adopt [U.S. President Barack] Obama's policy in which you don't negotiate and then you see your hostages assassinated, or you negotiate without admitting it."
A U.S. and a South African citizen held by al-Qaida in Yemen were killed on Saturday in an attempted rescue by U.S. special forces.
The sources and L'Independent, a Malian newspaper, said Mahamed Aly Ag Wadoussene and Haiba Ag Acherif, two Malians who were the main suspects behind the 2011 kidnapping, were among those released.
Ag Wadoussene escaped from a Bamako prison in a spectacular jail break in June but was later recaptured.
Both Nigerien and Malian authorities were involved in the release, Niger's presidency said. However, none of the governments involved comment on the reported exchange.
Hollande said in September Paris neither paid ransoms nor exchanged hostages for prisoners. "That does not mean other countries don't," he said. "Some countries have done it to help us. I admit it."
Last month, Lazarevic was seen in a video posted by AQIM imploring Hollande to do everything to free him.
Philippe Verdon, another Frenchman kidnapped alongside Lazarevic, was killed by his captors in northern Mali last year.
France launched an intervention against al-Qaida-linked militants in its former colony Mali in January 2013, a military action that spurred threats from insurgents of reprisals against French targets.