An influential Iraqi cleric from the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) said on Friday that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were safe and would be released soon.

 

"They are out of danger as Shaikh Hareth al-Dhari declared yesterday. Their release could just be a matter of time," said Shaikh Abd al-Salam al-Kubaisi, whose organisation has good contacts with certain armed groups operating in Iraq.

 

But French diplomatic sources in Baghdad said on Friday afternoon they had no fresh information on the whereabouts of the two reporters, and expressed irritation at the "completely groundless" speculation about their fates in recent days.

 

The French culture and communications minister said on Thursday the journalists were no longer in the hands of their abductors.

 

"We know that they are alive and no longer in the hands of the abductors who had held them," Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres told journalists on Thursday in Perpignan, southern France.

 

The editor of the French publication, Le Figaro, told Aljazeera that the hostages had been handed over to another group, which supported their release.

 

But a purported statement from the captors, published on a Islamist website on Friday, denied they had delegated negotiations to any other group. It said a decision about the captives would be made soon.

  

Speculation

  

"I believe that we can hope for a happy end," French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin told France 2 public television. "The indications that we have this evening are going in the right direction."

 

The French Council of Muslim Faith
has sent mediators to Iraq

The French media was abuzz with speculation about the fate of the Chesnot and Malbrunot, who were captured by the self-styled Islamic Army in Iraq.

 

The group has demanded that France lift a controversial ban on the Islamic headscarf in state schools.

  

"According to the information we have received, which is being studied with the greatest care, the two journalists are alive and in good health and being well treated," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said in Amman on Thursday afternoon.

 

France embarked on a frantic round of diplomatic lobbying in the Arab world seeking help to secure the release of the journalists since they went missing on 20 August.

 

Facing death

 

The hostages had warned in a video shown on Aljazeera television that they faced death if France did not revoke the law, but Paris vowed to stand its ground, saying it must protect the country's strictly secular traditions.

  

"The kidnappers wish to free them but they do not know how to do it because they are afraid of the Americans and also that the hostages could fall into the hands of another group"

Abd Allah Zekhri,
French Council for Muslim Faith

"Tomorrow is prayer day, it's Friday, it's a time for gathering together, for reflection," de Villepin said, hinting that they may be released on the Muslim day of prayer.

  

Barnier shuttled between Arab capitals while a delegation from the French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM) flew in to Baghdad on a lightning mission, then departed after saying they were reassured about the fate of the journalists following talks with influential religious leaders.

  

"We leave with confidence and full of hope," delegation chief Abd Allah Zekhri told AFP after talks with the AMS, who have helped mediate previous hostage releases in Iraq.

  

"The kidnappers wish to free them but they do not know how to do it because they are afraid of the Americans and also that the hostages could fall into the hands of another group. These are the obstacles to freeing them."