After three long years held hostage in the Sahara by al Qaeda-linked gunmen, these four men finally returned to France.

They arrived back in Paris, welcomed home by ectastic families and friends with hugs and tears.

Pierre Legrand, Daniel Larribe, Thierry Dol and Marc Feret were seized by the Islamic Maghreb organisation in September 2010.

They were employees at a uranium mine with the French nuclear company Areva, when they kidnapped by gunmen.

French President Francois Hollande was waiting for them at the military airfield.

(SOUNDBITE) (French) FRENCH PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE SAYING:

" I want to salute their courage. Three years, three years of an ordeal, of waiting, of suffering. They are not only men who went through these moments but they are also great citizens of France who were able to honour France during their captivity."

None of the released hostages wanted to speak.

Some appeared uncomfortable at being in the media glare.

But their release comes as a major boost to the president, one day after a poll showed him to be the most unpopular president on record.

Questions, however, remain over the details of the secret negotiations.

Reports say a ransom of 26 million dollars was paid. Officials denied the rumours but were vague about whether any money had changed hands.

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