France begins hostage release talks

The French foreign minister is to begin negotiations for the release of two journalists taken hostage in Iraq.

    President Chirac: Everything will be done to free the journalists

    In a televised address after a day of government crisis talks, President Jacques Chirac on Sunday confirmed he had sent Michel Barnier to Egypt to bring about the reporters' release by the self-styled Islamic Army in Iraq.

    The group has demanded that Paris end its ban on headscarves in state schools by late Monday.
      
    "Everything has been done and everything will be done in the hours and days to come to make sure that [the reporters' release] happens," Chirac said, adding he had "no additional information" about the fate of the two newsmen.
      
    Chirac said Barnier would first travel to Egypt "to develop the necessary contacts there and coordinate the efforts of our representatives on the scene".
      
    Hostage details

    Barnier hopes to negotiate the release of Radio France Internationale correspondent Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper, who went missing nine days ago. 
      

    The newsmen were taken hostage
    on the way to Najaf nine days ago

    The newsmen disappeared on their way to Najaf, then the scene of fierce fighting between US occupation forces and the al-Mahdi Army militia loyal to Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.
      
    The kidnappers' demand that Paris should revoke its ban on headscarves in state schools and universities upped the stakes in the debate over the controversial law, set to go into effect on Thursday when classes resume in France.
      
    Islamic reaction

    Muslim leaders condemned the kidnapping, with the president of the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), Dalil Abu Bakr, saying he was "shattered" by the "unworthy and odious blackmail". 
      
    Several other Islamic groups also condemned the hostage-taking or called for the immediate release of the two men, including Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, Iraq's most senior Sunni Muslim scholars, the Association of Muslim Scholars, as well as an Iraqi Salafist group who observe a strict interpretation of Islam.

    Late on Saturday, Aljazeera broadcast images of Chesnot and Malbrunot along with the ultimatum from the Islamic Army in Iraq.
      
    The kidnappers gave Paris 48 hours to meet their demands, describing the headscarf ban as "an injustice and an attack on the Islamic religion".

    SOURCE: Aljazeera + Agencies


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