French hostage Serge Lazarevic freed
Freed French hostage Serge Lazarevic speaks to the media in Niamey in this still image taken from video on Dec. 9, 2014. Reuters

The release of French hostage Serge Lazarevic from al Qaeda militants in Mali on Tuesday was secured after the African country released four terrorists to al Qaeda’s North African arm “on request from Paris,” a Malian security source told Agence France-Presse on Friday. If true, it would contradict French President Francois Hollande’s statement in September that France doesn’t pay ransoms or agree to prisoner exchanges to free French captives.

The source told AFP that the Malian government released four terrorists to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, in exchange for Lazarevic, a French citizen who was abducted in November 2011 by AQIM while on a business trip. "I can tell you that men, who some may say are terrorists but to us are prisoners, were freed in exchange for the French hostage," the source said.

Lazarevic, 51, was the last of 14 French hostages around the world to be freed, the BBC reported. He told reporters shortly after he was freed that he lost 44 pounds during his captivity. French citizens had been targeted for capture by AQIM until the French military started conducting operations in Mali in 2013. The identities of the four terrorists released by Mali were not released.

Human rights groups, including the International Federation of Human Rights and the Malian chapter of Amnesty International, condemned the release of the four terrorists, saying they were suspected of “grave human rights violations” in Mali, according to AFP.

The French government gave few details about how Lazarevic’s release was secured. "There were negotiations, diplomatic exchanges [and] discretion," government spokesman Stephane Le Foll told AFP.

If terrorists were released in exchange for Lazarevic, it would either mark a departure from France’s hostage policy or mean Hollande wasn’t being forthright about how France handles citizens who are held hostage.

"France does not pay ransoms, nor does France engage in prisoner exchanges," Hollande said in September, according to the Telegraph.