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French former hostage Lazarevic denies being spy, believes freed for ransom

media Released hostage Serge Lazarevic on arrival at Villacoublay airport near Paris AFP

Former hostage Serge Lazarevic has denied being a mercenary and said he was tortured while a prisoner of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) in northern Mali. His captors were more interested in money than religion, he told a French journalist on Saturday.

Lazarevic was held in the Sahara desert for three years, the first of them along with Philippe Verdon, who was captured with him, and later alone.

“We were beaten and tortured,” Lazarevic told Hugo Clément, a journalist at France 2 TV, after appearing on the channel’s evening news bulletin. “Very often they hit us with metal cables.”

Dossier: War in Mali

The beatings were particularly severe one New Year’s Eve, he said.

At the time he thought this was his captors’ way of seeing the new year in but now believes it was because of press speculation that he and Verdon were spies or mercenaries.

“Since my release I’ve come to understand that perhaps it was what was written about Philippe and me in the papers,” he told Clément. “That we were spooks, spies, mercenaries […] Right up to the end they kept saying ‘You’re a soldier, you’re a soldier’.”

During the interview, Lazarevic made a point of denying the rumour, insisting that he is a building worker, sent to Mali to work on a project to build a cement factory.

The former hostage said that he only learnt that Verdon, whose corpse was found abandoned in 2013, had been killed after his release.

“Philippe was very ill,” he said. “He had cancer of the colon. I was sure that he had been freed because of that and set back to France.”

Mali has confirmed that Lazarevic was released in a prisoner swap that saw the release of four jihadists, including two who are believed to have planned his kidnapping.

But, although the French government demands paying ransoms, there is speculation that money may have changed hands, too, and he seems to think so.

“Yes, I believe it was money,” he told the TV interviewer. “People who take people hostage do it for the money, it’s financial.”

His captors were young, one saying he was only 14, Lazarevic recalls, and did not appear particularly religious.

“These are poor people who have been given weapons and money. I think I was kidnapped for ransom. Religion … I don’t know. They said their prayers but not all the time.”

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