“I had forgotten what freedom was,” Lazarevic, 51, said after landing at the Villacoublay military airport. “But never forget that being a free man means looking after yourself, wherever you go. Be careful because freedom is more precious than anything.”
Although he lost 20 kilos during his three years of captivity by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), Lazarevic’s health was found satisfactory by a doctor who examined him on the plane from Niger, where he spent the night.
He was to be further examined at a military hospital and then return to his family, diplomats said.
His daughter, Diane, was also on the flight, having gone to Niamey to meet him, and the pair were met by Hollande on the tarmac.
“I want to give a simple, clear message to all our compatriots who may find themselves in high-risk zones,” the president said after greeting Lazarevic, who has joint French and Serbian nationality. “Avoid going to places where you could be kidnapped.”
Lazarevic was the last French hostage left alive and in captivity.
The number reached a high point of 15 in Africa last year.
Along with his colleague, Philippe Verdon, he was snatched by armed men while on a business trip to Mali in 2011.
Verdon was found shot dead last year.
They worked in security and construction and Aqim accused them of being spies, a charge their families denied.
Authorities in Niger and Mali were involved in the release, which was brokered by Mohamed Akotey, a Niger national who is a member of the Tuareg ethnic group, and has acted as go-between in previous hostage liberations, according to RFI’s correspondents in the region.
He reportedly contacted leaders of the Tuareg armed group, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad, in the Malian city of Kidal, who put him in touch with a lieutenant of Malian Islamist leader Iyad Ag Ghali.
The kidnappers’ leader, Abdelkrim Taleb, demanded a ransom and a prisoner exchange, according to RFI’s correspondent in Bamako.
Officials have so far refused to say whether a ransom as paid but a number of prisoners have been released, among them two men allegedly involved in carrying out the Lazarevic/Verdon kidnapping – Mohamed Ali ag Wadoussène and Haiba Ag Achérif.
Although France denies paying ransoms, Hollande admitted in September that other countries have done so “to help us”.
There was criticism of the prisoner exchange on social media and Niger on Wednesday.