PARIS — Two journalists held hostage by the Taliban for 18 months in Afghanistan came home to France on Thursday to an emotional welcome and nationwide relief, but dogged by questions surrounding their liberation.
Television reporter Herve Ghesquiere, 47, tears of joy in his eyes, described being confined indoors "23 and three-quarters hours a day" and repeatedly having his hopes raised of an imminent release – then dashed.
"When you crawl out of a hole and there's nothing for 18 months .... Whoo!" said Ghesquiere, searching for words.
Cameraman Stephane Taponier, 46, at his side, broke into a grin as he said, "We're doing really, really, really well."
The two, who work for state-run France-3 television, were kidnapped in December 2009 and freed Wednesday, with their Afghan translator, Reza Din. Two other Afghans kidnapped with them at the time were released earlier, French officials revealed.
Across the globe, the Taliban announced another homecoming, saying on Thursday that they released the journalists in exchange for an unspecified number of insurgents held as prisoners.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement that the French government was forced to release "our high-ranking fighters and, with the help of Allah, the exchange of the hostages occurred." He said French officials had tried to get the journalists released "by force and power ... but their operations failed."
The Taliban did not say who released the fighters or where they had been held.
"We congratulate the fighters from Kapisa province and the relatives of those who got released from the enemy's hands," Mujahid said, expressing hope that other fighters would be released as well.
Afghanistan's eastern Kapisa province is the region where the French journalists were taken hostage Dec. 29, 2009, after deciding to separate from French troops in Kapisa with whom they were embedded.
French authorities reiterated the stated policy of France: No ransom for hostages. They remained silent about what triggered the hostages' release after 18 months of negotiations.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, at Villacoublay military airport to greet the returning journalists, thanked Afghan President Hamid Karzai in particular for helping obtain freedom for the hostages.
The head of Reporters Without Borders, Jean-Francois Julliard, who was in Afghanistan days ago, said Wednesday night on BFM-TV that Karzai freed some prisoners to partially fulfill a Taliban demand. The media watchdog group had been in constant communication with French authorities during the hostage situation.
Ghesquiere had other things on his mind Thursday, including setting the record straight about their decision to leave French troops and go it alone. The two were working on a story about reconstruction on a road east of Kabul.
Before cheering colleagues, Ghesquiere said the French army did not warn them against the venture and the men felt prepared.
"Let it be clear: we did not go confront the northern face of (Mount) Everest in flip-flops," Ghesquiere said, underscoring the need for journalists to continue to report from Afghanistan.
During their captivity, the two journalists were publicly remonstrated for having taken unnecessary risks, and costing the French army millions to search for them. French journalists immediately rose up to defend the men.
Ghesquiere and Taponier looked quite pale but otherwise healthy, and were visibly moved by the huge crowd of journalists at a military air base outside Paris, then at the headquarters of France Televisions, home base for France-3. Thousands of colleagues packed the huge lobby and overhanging balconies for the homecoming.
The journalists insisted Thursday that they had not been beaten or mistreated by their Taliban captors, just experiencing "very, very difficult" living conditions. They said they were separated after the first three months and spent the rest of the time isolated and confined.
"We represented something important for" the Taliban, Taponier said, which he said gave him hope that they would eventually be freed.
The Taliban made a set of demands in exchange for the men's freedom. In April 2010, after posting a video of the hostages on the Internet, the Taliban said it had submitted a list of prisoners to French authorities that it wanted freed in exchange for the journalists.
Last week, French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said the announcements of staggered French and U.S. troop withdrawals might help the cause of freeing Ghesquiere and Taponier. President Barack Obama announced the withdrawal of 33,000 troops by September 2012, and France followed suit, announcing it will pull out a quarter of its force of 4,000.
The Taliban gave each journalist a radio at some point, they said. Taponier was able to listen to Radio France International, which was broadcasting regular messages of support to the two men in hopes they were listening.
"That warmed our hearts," Taponier said.
But Ghesquiere was only able to get a signal from the BBC, and said he was largely unaware of the large support movement in France campaigning for their release.
He described battling boredom and discouragement by exercising in the small room where he was isolated for months, and writing.
And he exclaimed in dismay in recalling that a year-and-a-half of notes he took were taken away before his liberation, because his captors didn't want any document released with them.
Ghesquiere specialized in war reporting, covering the Balkans conflict and doing investigative reports from around the globe, from Cambodia to the disputed Western Sahara territory. Taponier had filmed in the past in Afghanistan, notably a 2000 report on the northern commander Massoud, who was later killed.
Ghesquiere said he wanted to get back to a "normal life" as soon as possible, and not "play the role of an ex-hostage."
For the past 547 days, banners bearing their photos hung in city halls around France – banners taken down in jubilation after their release.
Deb Reichmann in Kabul, Oleg Cetinic at Villacoublay and Cecile Brisson in Paris contributed to this report.