PARIS (AP) — The Malian government says it exchanged four prisoners to secure the release of a French hostage held for three years by al-Qaida's North African branch.

The liberation of Serge Lazarevic last week revived debate among Western governments over whether to negotiate with hostage-takers.

A Mali government spokesman says al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb demanded the release of six prisoners "but the government freed only four, including two Malians."

The French government has not publicly confirmed a prisoner exchange or explained the circumstances of Lazarevic's release. France insists it pays no ransoms and does not exchange prisoners, although President Francois Hollande (frahn-SWAH' oh-LAWND') has acknowledged that other countries have done so, "to help us."

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