YAOUNDE: A French Roman Catholic priest freed Tuesday after being held captive for seven weeks by Islamic militants in Cameroon said he was "in great shape" and thanked those who helped secure his release.
Georges Vandenbeusch, 42, was kidnapped on November 13 by heavily armed men who burst into his parish at night in the far north of the central African country and reportedly took him to neighbouring Nigeria.
The radical Islamist movement Boko Haram, which has killed thousands of people in attacks against Christians and government targets in northern Nigeria, claimed responsibility for holding the French priest soon after he was kidnapped.
The Cameroonian army flew Vandenbeusch to the capital Yaounde and escorted him to the ambassador's residence, where he is expected to stay until French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrives later Tuesday to bring him back to Paris.
"I am in great shape, very grateful to all those who worked to free me," he told journalists after arriving in the capital.
He described his time in captivity as a period of "terrible boredom, sadness and anger because I'm very fond of the parish where I worked" in Cameroon.
French President Francois Hollande thanked both Nigerian and Cameroonian authorities for their help, and particularly Cameroon's President Paul Biya for his "personal involvement", as he announced Vandenbeusch's release.
The priest is due to land at the military air base of Villacoublay near the French capital on Wednesday at 0540 GMT, and Hollande will meet him.
"It's really, really good news. We were working on this for some time, in close contact with... President Biya who has been extremely active and useful," Fabius told RTL radio.
The circumstances of his release are still unclear.
A source close to Cameroonian security services said mid-December that negotiations were underway via Cameroonian middle-men who were close to the kidnappers.
On Tuesday, the Nigerian army denied being involved in the priest's release, despite having launched a major ground and air offensive against Boko Haram a day earlier, killing 56 fighters belonging to the Islamist movement.
France has always denied paying ransoms for its kidnapped nationals, and Fabius on Tuesday reiterated the policy.
Six French hostages still held
The Vatican welcomed the priest's release and called on the faithful to pray for those still being held around the world.
"We hope that all forms of violence, hatred and conflict in the tormented regions of Africa be stamped out, as well as elsewhere in the world," Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.
In his former parish of Sceaux, near Paris, the bells rang on Tuesday to celebrate his release.
"This church prayed for him a lot. Every day, candles were lit. You had to believe in it," said Marie, a 45-year-old faithful.
In a statement, his family thanked French, Cameroonian and Nigerian authorities and all those who supported them during the ordeal.
"At this time of joy, we do not forget the other French hostages, and are thinking of their families," they said.
There are still six French people being held hostage in Mali and Syria, and Hollande also reiterated his support for their families.
Vandenbeusch was abducted from his home near the town of Koza in northern Cameroon, about 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the Nigerian border.
He was seized by about 15 people who had first gone to the nuns' house, apparently to look for money, giving him time to warn the embassy.
At the time, Hollande had promised everything was being done to find him, but had also warned other French citizens against putting themselves in harm's way.
The priest had been advised not to stay on in an area designated as a dangerous zone prone to militancy and kidnappings.
In February, a Frenchman employed by gas group Suez was kidnapped in the same area together with his wife, their four children and his brother while visiting a national park.
They were taken to neighbouring Nigeria and also held by Boko Haram, before being released in April.