President pleads with French to travel carefully after release of hostage held by al-Qaida

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VILLACOUBLAY, France — President Francois Hollande, welcoming a freed hostage home, urged French citizens not to travel to areas where they risk being kidnapped.

Serge Lazarevic, held captive for three years by al-Qaida's North Africa branch, arrived Wednesday at the Villacoublay airport outside Paris after being released in what some suspect was a prisoner exchange.

His release revived questions about whether governments should negotiate with hostage-takers in hopes of saving captives' lives — and at the risk of encouraging terrorists to continue kidnapping.

Lazarevic repeatedly thanked Hollande and the government "for having done everything to free me" — but neither he nor the president detailed what led to the liberation.

The liberation came days after the release of two al-Qaida fighters imprisoned in Mali for Lazarevic's kidnapping, according to a security official in Mali.

Hollande expressed "extraordinary joy" at Lazarevic's return, then added: "I want to send a clear, simple message to all our fellow citizens who can be in so-called zones at risk. Make sure not to go where you can get abducted."

The French military is fighting extremists in Africa and the Mideast, and the Islamic State group and al-Qaida branches in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have identified France and French citizens as potential targets.

Lazarevic and another Frenchman, Philippe Verdon, were kidnapped from their hotel in northeastern Mali in November 2011. Verdon was found killed last year.

France insists it pays no ransoms and does not exchange prisoners, although Hollande has acknowledged that other countries have done so, "to help us." In the case of Lazarevic, Hollande credited cooperation of the governments of Mali and Niger.

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