PARIS - A Frenchman held for more than three years by al-Qaeda's North African branch was freed Tuesday, days after two of the men implicated in his abduction were reportedly released from a prison in Mali.
Negotiations among the governments of Niger, Mali, and France led to freedom for Serge Lazarevic, 51, who was described by the French president as in "relatively good health" despite his long captivity.
Tuesday's release, greeted with joy among many in France, stands in contrast to the attempted rescue in Yemen last weekend that ended in the deaths of two hostages - an American and South African - held by al-Qaeda.
Lazarevic was en route to Niamey, the capital of Niger, French President Francois Hollande said as he thanked Niger's president for helping to free the Frenchman.
"We no longer have any hostages in any country of the world, and we should not have any," Hollande added.
Hollande's government insists it pays no ransoms and does not exchange prisoners, although in September he acknowledged for the first time that "other countries have done so to help us."
Another Frenchman kidnapped in Mali in November 2011 along with Lazarevic, Philippe Verdon, was found dead in July 2013.
A security official in Mali, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared for his safety, said Lazarevic's release came after negotiations to free two al-Qaeda fighters arrested in his abduction.
The two al-Qaeda detainees were transferred to mediators in Niger on Saturday and turned over to al-Qaeda, the Malian official said.
It was not clear whether they remained in Niger.
A French official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Lazarevic was freed Tuesday but declined to give any details on the release of the al-Qaeda prisoners beyond saying the negotiations over Lazarevic's release were led by Mali and Niger.
Lazarevic and Verdon were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori in northeastern Mali while doing a feasibility study for a future cement factory, their families have said.
Speculation is widespread, however, that there were other reasons for their presence in Mali, a longtime desert hideout for al-Qaeda and other extremists in Africa's Sahel region.