PARIS (AP) — A French priest kidnapped by Islamic radicals in northern Cameroon last November after ignoring danger warnings has been set free, President Francois Hollande's office said Tuesday.
Georges Vandenbeusch was kidnapped by heavily armed men on Nov. 13 in the far north of Cameroon, about 18 miles (30 kilometers) from the border with Nigeria. There was never a claim of responsibility, but suspicion fell on the radical Islamic sect Boko Haram which operates in the area, the Koza region, or on Ansaru, a Boko Haram splinter group responsible for most kidnappings of foreigners there.
The zone has been flagged as a risk for terrorism and kidnapping, but the priest — who cared for Nigerian refugees — chose to stay on to "exercise his mission," the French Foreign Ministry said at the time.
In a statement from his office, the French president thanked authorities in Cameroon and Nigeria for their "relentless" efforts in helping to free the priest. He "particularly" thanked Cameroon President Paul Biya for personally working on the case, but provided no details on how the release was secured.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on BFM-TV that he spoke to Biya regularly during the priest's captivity and the release came early Tuesday — with no ransom paid. Fabius traveled to Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, to bring Vandenbeusch home. The freed priest was expected back in France on Wednesday, New Year's day.
Eyewitnesses said that a group of at least a dozen armed and masked gunmen had burst into the compound where Vandenbeusch lived and whisked him off on a motorbike, firing guns as they sped away. Two days after the priest was snatched, the kidnappers sent a representative to the area to demand the release of captured Boko Haram members, fellow priest Gilbert Pali said at the time.
Boko Haram, which in the Hausa language means "western education is forbidden," has waged a campaign of bombings and shootings across Nigeria's north. The group has been held responsible for more than 790 deaths last year and many dozens more this year.
In April, a French expatriate family with four young children was kidnapped at gunpoint in the same far north region of Cameroon and freed two months later. Then, too, the captors demanded freedom for Boko Haram prisoners in custody in Nigeria and Cameroon, especially women and children.
There has been no announcement about freedom for prisoners to match the demands.
Each time French hostages are freed there is speculation about whether — or how much — ransom was paid. In the case of the family, Hollande reiterated French policy "that France does not pay ransom."
Fabius, the foreign minister, reiterated that policy on Tuesday. "It's long-term, very difficult team work" to free a hostage, he said. "There were discussions, of course," he said. "That is where Cameroon is extremely useful," he added, refusing to elaborate.
However, France has come under criticism over what diplomats and analysts say is an unofficial policy of indirectly paying ransom through middlemen. Vicki Huddleston, a former U.S. ambassador to Mali, has alleged that France paid a $17 million ransom to free hostages seized from a French mining site in Niger — cash she said ultimately funded al-Qaida-linked militants in neighboring Mali. The four hostages were freed in October.
Monsignor Bernard Podvin, spokesman for the bishops of France, said that Father Georges, as Vandenbeusch is called, "isn't someone who was seeking danger for danger's sake. He sought goodness."
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi called for prayers for "all the other persons unjustly held hostage throughout the world."
The French statement announcing freedom for the priest noted that six French citizens continue to be held hostage in Mali and Syria.
Vandenbeusch was kidnapped less than two weeks after two French journalists were kidnapped then quickly shot to death in northern Mali.
Michelle Faul in Lago, Nigeria and Fran d'Emilio in Rome contributed to this report.