Lazarevic was kidnapped by Al Qaeda's North African wing, AQIM, in northern Mali in late 2011, and his return is a political boost for Hollande. However, the questions over how he was freed still loom large.

A beaming Lazarevic met his family and the president on the tarmac of Villacoublay airport near Paris after getting off a flight from Niger. "Being a hostage is a bit difficult, it's not easy. But life is beautiful, to be freed again," Lazarevic told a waiting group of TV cameras and reporters. "I forgot what freedom is. Be careful because freedom is the most priceless thing."

Lazarevic was released on Tuesday and Hollande has denied that France paid any ransom. Both Niger and Mali were involved in the release, said officials, but authorities provided no details of the liberation.    
               
"Welcome, Serge Lazarevic. We've been waiting for you for three years. Three years you've suffered," said Hollande, with the ex-hostage at his side. "You're back. It's a joy to welcome you back."
              
Hollande mentioned Philippe Verdun, another Frenchman kidnapped alongside Lazarevic who was killed by his captors in northern Mali last year, and advised French citizens to avoid risky zones. "Make sure you don't go where you can be kidnapped - we're in a dangerous world. There are zones where you shouldn't travel ... we know the risks," Hollande warned.

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