PARIS (AP) — France's last hostage was freed Tuesday after being held for more than three years by al-Qaida's North Africa branch — rekindling debate over whether countries should negotiate with extremists or stick to a muscular, uncompromising policy that runs the risk of a beheading or a botched rescue attempt.
French President Francois Hollande announced the "happy news" that 51-year-old Serge Lazarevic had been freed from captivity in Mali, prompting a standing ovation in the National Assembly.
"We no longer have any hostages in any country of the world, and we should not have any," Hollande said.
TV images hours later showed a smiling Lazarevic — bald, goateed and 40 pounds (20 kilograms) lighter — as he met with Niger's president. He was to fly to France early Wednesday.
The release stood in sharp contrast to the failed rescue in Yemen last weekend that ended in the deaths of an American journalist and a South African aid worker held by al-Qaida's branch in the Arabian Peninsula.
The announcement immediately raised questions over what concessions the French government made to the extremist group holding Lazarevic, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). France insists it pays no ransoms and does not exchange prisoners, although in September Hollande acknowledged that "other countries have done so, to help us."
But as with numerous French hostage releases in recent years, the story of Lazarevic's release was far from complete. Hollande credited cooperation of the governments of Mali and Niger, but gave no details.
Analysts, lawmakers and critics quickly took to the French airwaves to discuss the pros and cons of paying ransoms and speculate whether the French government, its friends or affiliates did.
Worryingly for some, Lazarevic may have been freed in a trade.
His liberation came days after the release of two al-Qaida fighters imprisoned in Mali for his kidnapping and that of a colleague, Philippe Verdon, according to a security official in Mali. Verdon was later found shot to death in July 2013.
The two al-Qaida detainees were transferred to mediators in Niger on Saturday and turned over to al-Qaida, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety.
A French official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive declined to give any details on the release of the al-Qaida prisoners beyond saying the negotiations to secure Lazarevic's freedom were led by Mali and Niger.
Lazarevic and Verdon were kidnapped from their hotel in northeastern Mali in November 2011 while doing a feasibility study for a cement factory, their families have said. Speculation is widespread, however, that there were other reasons for their presence in Mali, a long-time desert hideout for al-Qaida and other extremists in Africa's Sahel region.
AQIM alleged that they were French spies, but a Western counterterrorism official denied the claim.
Hostage-taking is a lucrative business in Mali and other Sahel countries. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb took numerous Western hostages until France intervened in Mali in January 2013 to rout out extremists. U.S. officials have quietly accused France and other European countries of paying ransoms for their kidnapped citizens.
President Barack Obama last month ordered a review of how the United States responds when its citizens are taken hostage overseas, following the beheadings of Americans by Islamic militants in recent months. But the U.S. administration said the review will not include changing the policy against ransoms.
"You have a choice between the policy of Mr. Obama, which appears to be not to negotiate and to see hostages killed, and a position of negotiating without admitting it," Alain Marsaud, a conservative French lawmaker, told the BFM television network.
"It's true that we negotiate, we pay, and we try to get results .... There isn't a single Frenchman who believes Mr. Lazarevic was freed because Mr. Hollande has nice eyes."
Hollande on Tuesday urged French citizens and companies to take continued precautions against kidnappings. At one point, at least 14 French nationals were held hostage by Islamic militants in West Africa.
His tone was tempered by confirmation of "the darkest news" about another French hostage: Gilberto Rodriguez-Leal, who was captured in 2012 while traveling in Mauritania and Mali. Authorities have for months feared he was dead.
Pierre Martinet, a former official for France's spy agency DGSE, said French citizens will continue to be targeted by extremist kidnappers "because they know it's among the governments that directly negotiate for their liberation."
"It's part of geopolitics," Martinet said on French TV. "I know very well that we have given money; I know people myself who have given money. It happens. We have to stop lying to ourselves."
Pascal Lupart, ex-president of a support committee for the two French hostages, said he was particularly concerned that Lazarevic may have been freed only after two of his kidnappers were freed.
Extremists know that seizing French hostages is "financial manna," Lupart said. "You're not going to tell me that he was freed because of political pressure."
On French TV, Africa expert Antoine Glaser noted that France often leans hard on African leaders to help win the freedom of French hostages.
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou acknowledged as much after welcoming Lazarevic on Tuesday. Hollande, he said, took him aside at an Africa security conference in Paris last December and asked him to "keep up the work" on Lazarevic's case after four French hostages seized in Niger were released last year.
Baba Ahmed from Casablanca, Morocco, and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.