France calls hostage-crisis meeting

France's Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has called a ministerial crisis meeting after an ultimatum on two French journalists held in Iraq was extended by 24 hours.

    PM Raffarin has met key political figures in a show of unity

    The meeting at the prime minister's office on Tuesday is to be attended by Education Minister Francois Fillon, Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, Communications Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope.

    Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, who is on a diplomatic trip through the Middle East in an attempt to obtain the release of the two journalists, will be represented by his aide Pierre Vimont, a source close to the prime minister said.

    The French journalists held hostage by captors in Iraq were shown in a video on Aljazeera on Monday urging the French Government to revoke a ban on Muslim headscarfs in schools, warning that their lives were at stake.

    The appeal by Radio France correspondent Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper, who also called on their compatriots to demonstrate against the ban, came as Aljazeera reported that their captors had extended by 24 hours an ultimatum to Paris, which had originally expired late on Monday.

    No ban reversal

    The French authorities have been on their toes since the news of the journalists' capture was announced on Saturday night, with President Jacques Chirac "solemnly" calling for their release and Barnier heading off for the Middle East.

    France has refused to lift the ban
    on headscarves in schools

    The prime minister headed two crisis meetings on Sunday and met leading French political figures on Monday at the Matignon, his office, in a show of solidarity and national unity.

    Chirac's government vowed on Monday not to cede to the captors' demands and said it would implement the ban on all conspicuous religious insignia on Thursday when French schools' pupils return from the holidays.

    The law bans the wearing of large crosses, Jewish skullcaps, Sikh turbans and Muslim headscarves.

    After a series of meetings in Cairo on Monday, Barnier was due to meet on Tuesday his Jordanian counterpart Marwan Muashar and King Abd Allah II.

    SOURCE: AFP


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