PARIS -- PARIS (AP) — Four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants landed in France on Wednesday after three years in captivity in the punishing African Sahel.

The wife and daughters of one hostage, Daniel Larribe, rushed to hug him, and the three held each other while crying. Other friends and family snapped photos of their loved ones finally home.

President Francois Hollande greeted each of the hostages on the tarmac at a military airport outside Paris.

At the time of their capture, the four — Pierre Legrand, Thierry Dol, Marc Feret and Larribe — were working in Arlit, Niger, where the French state-controlled nuclear giant Areva operates a uranium mine. They were retrieved in northern Mali on Tuesday.

Both countries are in Sahel, the arid region that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea just south of the Sahara Desert that is prowled by militants from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

The former hostages spent their first night of freedom in the Niger capital, Niamey, and left for Paris early Wednesday morning. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had flown to Niger to pick them up. Fabius joked that some of the men slept on the floor of their rooms, finding the mattresses too soft after their ordeal.

Francoise Larribe told reporters how Daniel survived the detention. Francoise herself was captured along with her husband and the other three but was released more than a year ago.

"I think Daniel on his part had a desire to resist, and he did it in a completely formidable way," she said. "It's like what we used to say to each other when we were in captivity together: every day is a victory."

Amid the immense joy of the homecoming, Hollande recalled that there are still seven French citizens being held hostage, three in Africa and four in Syria.

"Today it's joy for the four families, for our four ex-hostages, but it is still an unbearable wait for other families and for other hostages," he told reporters from the tarmac.

None of the men wanted to speak after Hollande, and some were made visibly uncomfortable by the intense media attention, hanging their heads and shifting from foot to foot behind the president as he spoke.

Also hanging over the homecoming were questions about why the men were taken captive in the first place and whether a ransom was paid to secure their release. The global intelligence company Stratfor estimates that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has carried out at least 18 kidnappings since 2003, raising an estimated $89 million in ransom payments.

Pascal Lupart — who, as head of an association representing friends and families of the hostages, is in touch with those investigating the case — said he was told that Areva paid a ransom for the captives. He did not know the amount, however.

While analysts say that France has previously paid ransoms to free its citizens, Hollande announced earlier this year that the country would no longer pay to secure the release of hostages. He and several other members of the government have since reiterated that no ransom was paid in this case. An Areva press officer, Julien Duperray, also said on Wednesday that no ransom was paid.

There are also questions about how the hostages were taken from Arlit, despite substantial security. Alain Legrand said that while he was thrilled at the release of his son, Pierre, he would be looking for explanations.

"My son is 28. He's spent more than one of every 10 days of his life in captivity. I would like someone to explain to me why," he told French television.

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Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.

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  • French President Francois Hollande, center, gestures as he talks to released French hostages Daniel Larribe, third from right, Pierre Legrand, third from left, Thierry Dol, second from left, Marc Feret, left, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, second from right and defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, right, before addressing the media at the Villacoublay military airbase, outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants have landed in France on Wednesday after three years in captivity in the punishing African Sahel. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

  • French President Francois Hollande, second from right, addresses the media alongside released French hostages Daniel Larribe, third from right, Pierre Legrand, second from left, Thierry Dol, right, and Marc Feret, left, shortly after their arrival at the Villacoublay military air base, outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants have landed in France on Wednesday after three years in captivity in the punishing African Sahel. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

  • President, Francois Hollande, 2nd left, walks on the tarmac with released French hostages Daniel Larribe, right, Pierre Legrand, 2nd right, Thierry Dol and Marc Feret, left, before addressing the media at Villacoublay military air base, outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants have landed in France on Wednesday after three years in captivity in the punishing African Sahel. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

  • Relatives of released French hostages cheer as the plane carrying them home arrives on the tarmac at Villacoublay military airbase outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen taken hostage by al-Qaida-linked extremists in Niger have been released after three years of captivity and a French-led military intervention in the region that weakened the Islamic radicals. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

  • From left: released French hostages Thierry Dol, Pierre Legrand, Marc Feret, France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, France's Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, French hostage Daniel Larribe and France's President Francois Hollande, walk on the tarmac to attend a press conference after the arrival of the French hostages at Villacoublay military airbase outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen taken hostage by al-Qaida-linked extremists in Niger have been released after three years of captivity and a French-led military intervention in the region that weakened the Islamic radicals. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

  • From left: released French hostage Marc Feret, France's President Francois Hollande, French hostages, Daniel Thierry Dol, Pierre Legrand, and Daniel Larribe and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius walk after the arrival of the French hostages at Villacoublay military airbase outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen taken hostage by al-Qaida-linked extremists in Niger have been released after three years of captivity and a French-led military intervention in the region that weakened the Islamic radicals. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

  • Released French hostages Thierry Dol, center left, and Pierre Legrand, center left facing, are greeted by relatives and officials as they arrives at the Villacoublay military airbase outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants for three years in the African Sahel have landed in France. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

  • France's President Francois Hollande smiles as he talks with relatives of released French hostage Daniel Larribe, upon the arrival of the hostages at the Villacoublay military airbase outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants for three years in the African Sahel have landed in France. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

  • Released French hostage Daniel Larribe's wife Francoise, center right, and daughter Maud, second from left, react during a news conference held by French President Francois Hollande after the arrival of released French hostages at Villacoublay military airbase outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen taken hostage by al-Qaida-linked extremists in Niger have been released after three years of captivity and a French-led military intervention in the region that weakened the Islamic radicals. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

  • Released French hostage Daniel Larribe, fourth from right, is surrounded by his family upon his arrival at Villacoublay military airbase, outside Paris, as French President, Francois Hollande, second from right, and defense minister Jean-Luc Le Drian speak to defense minister chief of staff Gal Antoine Noguier, right, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants have landed in France on Wednesday after three years in captivity in the punishing African Sahel. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

  • Released French hostage Daniel Larribe attends a news conference with French President Francois Hollande, after his arrival at Villacoublay military airbase outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen taken hostage by al-Qaida-linked extremists in Niger have been released after three years of captivity and a French-led military intervention in the region that weakened the Islamic radicals. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

  • France's President Francois Hollande, right, gestures as he speaks with released French hostage Daniel Larribe shortly after his arrival at the Villacoublay military airbase outside Paris, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Four Frenchmen held hostage by al-Qaida militants for three years in the African Sahel have landed in France. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)