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French hostage in Nigeria escaped his jailers: Hollande

PARIS (Reuters) - A French engineer who had been held hostage by Islamist militants in northern Nigeria for almost a year has escaped his jailers, President Francois Hollande said on Sunday.

Hollande gave no details about the escape, but a Nigerian police official told Reuters Francis Collomp, who is over 60, had slipped out of his cell and managed to find a motorcycle taxi which took him to a police station.

Collomp was seized when about 30 gunmen stormed his compound on December 19 in the northern Nigerian town of Rimi, close to the Niger border where al Qaeda's North African wing, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), operates.

"The president expresses his gratitude to the Nigerian authorities, with whom French authorities have collaborated closely on this decisive action," Hollande's office said in a statement on Sunday.

Arriving in Israel for a state visit, Hollande later said Collomp had freed himself and that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who arrived in Israel with Hollande, was flying to Nigeria to receive him.

Nigerian Police commissoner Olufemi Adenaike told Reuters Collomp had been moved to the town of Zaria, in northern Nigeria, in the past three months and had fled from there.

"He escaped yesterday in Zaria and boarded a commercial motorcycle taxi to the nearest police station," Adenaike said.

"We handed him over to the French embassy this morning," he added.

A diplomatic source told Reuters Collomp was weak and had lost a lot of weight but was not injured.

Collomp's wife Anne-Marie told French radio Hollande had called her to inform her her husband was free.

"I have heard that he has escaped, I say bravo my husband, bravo," she said.

In September, Collomp - an engineer at French renewable energy firm Vergnet - asked for help in a three-minute video posted on a jihadi website.

Ansaru, the militant group that kidnapped him, said soon after his abduction that he had been taken in retaliation for France's military action against jihadi insurgents in nearby Mali and its ban on wearing the full-face veil.

Britain has put Ansaru on its official "terrorist group" list, saying it is aligned with al Qaeda and was behind the kidnapping of a British national and a Italian who were killed last year during a failed rescue attempt.

The group is thought to have loose ties to the better-known Islamist militant sect Boko Haram, which has killed thousands in a four-year-long insurgency focused mostly on Nigerian security forces, religious targets and politicians.

Boko Haram and splinter groups like Ansaru pose the biggest security threat in Africa's second-biggest economy and top oil exporter, a major supplier to the Europe, Brazil and India.

Collomp's release comes just weeks after four French hostages kidnapped in Niger by AQIM, were released on October 29 after three years in captivity.

Seven other French nationals are being held hostage in Syria, Mali and Nigeria, including French priest Georges Vandenbeusch, who was kidnapped in northern Cameroon last week and is believed to be held in Nigeria.

(Reporting by Geert De Clercq and Emmanuel Jarry in Paris, Elizabeth Pineau in Jerusalem, Tim Cocks in Lagos and Isaac Abrak in Kaduna; Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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