PARIS (AFP) - France's last remaining hostage, Serge Lazarevic, arrived home Wednesday after three years at the hands of Islamist militants, to be greeted by his family and French President Francois Hollande.
The beaming 51-year-old, dressed casually in a blue hooded top, was welcomed warmly by Hollande at a military airport outside Paris before an emotional embrace with his mother and sister.
Lazarevic, sporting a closely-cropped beard, shared a joke with Hollande and the rest of his family after exiting the jet with his daughter.
He was expected to be taken immediately to a military hospital for check-ups before returning to the comfort of his family, according to a diplomatic source.
"The doctor gave him a check-up on the plane and he's doing well," this source said.
Lazarevic was the last of more than a dozen French citizens taken captive in recent years, with those held in Africa reaching a high of 15 last year. Four journalists held by Syrian hardliners were released earlier this year.
There was no immediate information on how the release was secured or whether France paid a ransom.
Lazarevic was snatched by armed men in Mali on Nov 24, 2011 while on a business trip with fellow Frenchman Philippe Verdon in a kidnapping claimed by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Verdon, who suffered from an ulcer and tachycardia - an abnormally fast heartbeat - was found shot dead last year, and those close to his family suggested he had been executed because he was weak.
Lazarevic, speaking in the capital of Niger after meeting with President Mahamadou Issoufou following his release, said: "I lost about 20 kilos, but I'm in fine shape.
"I would like to thank the president of Niger (and) the people of Niger, who worked with France for my freedom," he said.
A Malian security source said the final stages of Lazarevic's release had taken place in the northern desert city of Kidal.
"I won't say if there was a ransom payment or liberation of prisoners," the source told AFP.
In his three years in captivity, Lazarevic appeared in several AQIM videos, the most recent of which was in November in which he said he was gravely ill and believed his life was in danger.
After Lazarevic's appearance with a thick beard and dark headdress in the last video, his daughter Diane urged Hollande to obtain his release "as fast as possible... for Christmas."
Fears spiked for the safety of the tall Frenchman of Serbian origin after hiker Herve Gourdel was abducted in Algeria and beheaded in September by Islamic State-linked militants.
The pair, who worked in security and construction, were accused by AQIM of being French intelligence agents, something their families have denied.
Announcing the release on Tuesday, Hollande thanked the authorities in Mali and Niger for their assistance in securing Lazarevic's release.
"Our hostage Serge Lazarevic, our last hostage, is free," Hollande said. "There are no more French hostages in any country in the world."
The presidency in Niamey said in a statement that the liberation was "the result of intense and continued efforts from authorities both in Niger and Mali".
One of the main armed Tuareg groups in the still-volatile region, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), said it had also "participated in the release" efforts.
While the details of Lazarevic's release were not given, France has repeatedly denied paying ransoms despite being accused by other Western nations of using back-channels to do so.
"France does not pay ransoms, nor does France engage in prisoner exchanges," Hollande said in September.
But he added: "This does not mean that countries do not do it. It has happened that some countries, to help us, do it. That I concede." Former anti-terrorism judge Alain Marsaud was more sceptical.
"There is no reason for heated debate. We pay, we pay and that is all," he told RTL radio. "There is no release if there is no payment. Someone paid, if not the government, a business or insurance company."