Last French hostage Lazarevic freed in Mali

Serge Lazarevic was kidnapped in 2011 while on a business trip and held by Islamist militants; he is said to be in ‘relatively good health’

France’s only remaining hostage held abroad, who was kidnapped in Mali three years ago, has been freed.

Serge Lazarevic, 51, was snatched by armed men in Mali on November 24, 2011 while on a business trip with fellow Frenchman Philippe Verdon in a kidnapping claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

There was no immediate information on how the release was secured or whether France paid a ransom. President Francois Hollande said Lazarevic was in “relatively good health”.

Lazarevic is 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 jihadists were released earlier this year.

“Our hostage Serge Lazarevic, our last hostage, is free,” Hollande said. “There are no more French hostages in any country in the world.”

Hollande said Lazarevic would be met by his daughter in Niger’s capital Niamey before making his way back to France where he and his family would be welcomed by the president.

“He is in relatively good health, despite the gruelling conditions of his long captivity,” said Hollande.

A Malian security source explained that the final stages of Lazarevic’s release took place in the desert city of Kidal.

“I won’t say if there was a ransom payment or liberation of prisoners,” the source said.

In his three years in captivity Lazaravic has 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 to be in danger.

Fears spiked for the safety of the towering Frenchman of Serbian origin after hiker Herve Gourdel was abducted in Algeria and beheaded in September by Islamic State-linked militants.

After Lazarevic’s appearance with a thick beard and dark headdress in the last video, his daughter Diane beseeched Hollande to double down and obtain his release “as fast as possible… for Christmas.”

Lazarevic and Verdon, who worked in security and construction, were accused by AQIM of being French intelligence agents, something which their families have denied.

They were in the hands of AQIM as it and other hardline Islamist groups launched a takeover of vast areas of northern Mali in 2012 and as they were in turn ousted by the French army which intervened in 2013.

Verdon, who suffered from an abnormally fast heartbeat, was found shot dead last year, and those close to his family suggested he had been executed as he was weak.

Uncertainty remains over the fate of another French hostage Gilberto Rodrigues Leal. His death was confirmed but his remains have never been found.