Two French journalists freed after 18 months' captivity at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan stepped smiling and laughing onto home soil and into the arms of their families on Thursday.
Cameraman Stephane Taponier and reporter Herve Ghesquiere, both 48, stepped into the sunshine at a military airport near Paris at 9:00 am (0700 GMT), hugged and kissed relatives and shook hands with President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Looking relaxed and healthy, they told television crews on the tarmac that they had not been mistreated by their captors but did not enjoy the Afghan mountain food, and passed the time listening to the radio and doing exercises.
"We were locked up 23 and three-quarter hours a day with just two toilet breaks, dawn and evening," said Ghesquiere, looking tired but smiling and laughing at times.
"We were never beaten," he said, adding that he spared a thought for hostages elsewhere in the world who were mistreated.
"The food wasn't the hostage special, it was more the Afghan mountain special -- not much to eat and always the same thing," Ghesquiere added.
"It was really awful."
He said they even had interesting discussions with their captors, via their interpreter Reza Din who was captured with them.
"You had to be tough... We hung in there, with lots of help from our interpreter Reza, who is also with his family now in Kabul," he said.
"We are very, very well," said Taponier. "We were never threatened, but the living conditions were still very hard."
Ghesquiere confirmed that he and Taponier were held "alone" separately last year for eight months of their ordeal.
Stepping off the plane earlier, they embraced waiting relatives and shook hands with Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, a private moment captured from a distance on televised images.
The journalists, who work for state network France 3, were freed along with Din on Wednesday, the French government said, in circumstances that remained unclear.
Two other Afghans captured with them had been released earlier, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said. He denied a ransom was paid and said Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai had helped Paris secure the men's release.
The two Frenchmen had become the longest-held Western hostages in the nation stricken by the war which they were covering.
Their abduction was claimed by the Taliban, the Islamist group that ruled Afghanistan until a US-led invasion in 2001, now in revolt against the Kabul government. The guerrillas accused the journalists of spying.
In January, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden threatened France in an audio tape message and said that the journalists' release would depend on France withdrawing its nearly 4,000 soldiers from Afghanistan.
Bin Laden was killed in a US commando raid in Pakistan in May, and Sarkozy announced last week that "several hundred" French troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan before the end of the year in line with US pullouts.
Juppe denied the men's release was linked to this announcement.
A few months after the abduction, Sarkozy said the two men were to blame for venturing into the dangerous region, outraging their media colleagues who waged a continuous campaign to make sure they were not forgotten.
French officials appealed for the release of other French hostages still thought to be held by armed groups around the world, including in Yemen, the Sahara region and Somalia.
Ghesquiere said Thursday he remained devoted to war reporting despite his ordeal.
"I'm not likely to go back to Afghanistan tomorrow or the day after," he said. "But I want to do this job more than ever."