Three French aid workers captured by al-Qaida militants in Yemen six months ago returned home Monday night, hours after being freed thanks to help from the sultan of Oman and a possible ransom payment.
Kidnappers linked to al-Qaida's offshoot in the region had demanded $12 million in exchange for the three and had threatened to kill the hostages if ransom wasn't paid imminently, according to Yemeni officials.
The hostage ordeal came amid an uprising against the 30-year reign of President Ali Abdullah Saleh that has unraveled security in Yemen, the Arab world's poorest country. Al-Qaida-linked militants have taken control of entire towns in the country's restive south.
The aid group Triangle Generation Humanitaire said the three workers _ two women and a man _ were in good health. But the circumstances of their release remained murky.
A senior Yemeni tribal mediator said the Omani government and a Yemeni businessman paid a ransom, though he gave no figure and the ransom couldn't immediately be confirmed.
The mediator said Oman and Yemeni tribesmen negotiated the release, and that the hostages were handed over to mediators one by one. He said a helicopter carried the hostages from the southern Yemeni city of Shabwa _ a hotbed of Islamic militants _ to Oman late Sunday.
The mediator spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. He didn't give further details.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy personally thanked the sultan of Oman by telephone "for the essential role of Omani authorities" in freeing the hostages _ and for the "exemplary action" of the country's forces, his office said. It did not elaborate as to the role Omani forces played.
The French president announced the hostages' freedom in a separate statement early Monday, with thanks to the Omanis for their "decisive help."
Prime Minister Alain Juppe greeted the three on their arrival at Villacoublay military airport, west of Paris. They were expected to spend several days for medical checkups and a debriefing _ the classic re-entry for freed French hostages.
Authorities in Oman did not comment on the release or its government's role. The state-run Oman News Agency quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying that Oman helped find the hostages because of its "distinguished relations" with France. The report did not mention a ransom, saying only that Sultan Qaboos Bin Said ordered Oman authorities to provide "all facilities" to help find the hostages.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero, whose government has cultivated ties with countries in the Gulf region, said Monday: "You know France's position. We do not pay ransom."
The two women and one man from Triangle Generation Humanitaire were abducted May 28 in eastern Yemen's Hadramawt province, which is home to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
"We know they are in good physical shape," a director of the group, Patrick Verbruggen, told The Associated Press. "We are sharing a moment of happiness."
He said he had no details about how they were released, whether a ransom was paid, or when they would return to France.
The aid group, based in Lyon, France, pulled out its expatriate employees from Yemen after the kidnapping, though Yemeni employees remain. The group works on projects to improve water supplies and farming infrastructure.
Abdu al-Janadi, a Yemeni government spokesman, told reporters on Sunday the hostages were held by al-Qaida militants in Shabwa and that the abductors threatened to kill the hostages if the Yemeni government didn't pay a ransom by the end of the week.
Kidnappings are common in Yemen, where tribesmen use abductions to try to force concessions from the government, such as the release of fellow tribesmen in prison.
Yemeni government forces and allied tribesmen killed 10 militants in attacks around the country Sunday, security officials said. A visiting U.N. envoy met with Saleh to push for a solution to the country's political crisis.
Associated Press writers Jamal Al-Jashini in Sanaa, Yemen, and Brian Murphy in Dubai contributed to this report.