Barnier in Egypt on hostage release mission

30th August 2004, Comments 0 comments

CAIRO, Aug 30 (AFP) - French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier arrived in Cairo early Monday on the first leg of an urgent Middle East mission for contacts with Egyptian officials over two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq, a diplomatic source told AFP.

CAIRO, Aug 30 (AFP) - French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier arrived in Cairo early Monday on the first leg of an urgent Middle East mission for contacts with Egyptian officials over two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq, a diplomatic source told AFP.  

Barnier was sent to the Middle East by President Jacques Chirac to secure the release of the newsmen held by Islamic militants.

The next stages of his mission have not been revealed.  

An Egyptian source said Barnier would meet General Omar Suleiman, head of Egypt's secret service and confidant of President Hosni Mubarak. Suleiman has been following events in Iraq closely.  

The source said the French minister would also meet Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, who has extensive contacts in the Arab world.  

No details could be obtained from French sources of Barnier's programme in Cairo or about subsequent legs of his mission.  

In a televised address late Sunday after a day of government crisis talks, Chirac called for the release of the two reporters being held by the Islamic Army in Iraq, which 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 happens," Chirac said, adding he had "no additional information" about the fate of the two newsmen.  

Chirac said that Barnier would "leave immediately for the region to develop the necessary contacts there and coordinate the efforts of our representatives on the scene."  

The foreign ministry said Barnier would first travel to Egypt in his bid to negotiate the release of Radio France correspondent Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper, who went missing 10 days ago.  

Muslim leaders in France and abroad joined the government in urging the Islamic Army in Iraq, the same shadowy Sunni Muslim group that kidnapped and later killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, to free the two men.  

The group's demand that Paris 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 Thursday when classes resume in France.  

"Today, the entire nation has banded together because what is at stake is the lives of two Frenchmen, the defence of freedom of expression and also the values of our republic," Chirac said.  

"France is the homeland of human rights. France is a land of tolerance. France ensures the equality, respect and protection of the right to practice all religions within the framework of our common law," he noted.  

"These values of respect and tolerance drive our actions all over the world and at home.

These values also inspired France's policy in Iraq," he added, hailing the country's Muslim leaders for "defending these principles".  

The newsmen went missing on August 20, the day they were to have left Baghdad for the central holy city of Najaf, then the scene of fierce fighting between US forces and Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada Sadr.  

Late Saturday, Arabic-language Al-Jazeera television broadcast images of Chesnot and Malbrunot - both Middle East experts with years of experience in the region - along with the ultimatum from the Islamic Army in Iraq.  

The militants gave Paris 48 hours to meet their demands, describing the headscarf ban as "an injustice and an attack on the Islamic religion," the Qatar-based network reported, citing its own sources in Iraq.  

Muslim leaders condemned the kidnapping, with the president of the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM), Dalil Boubakeur, saying he was "shattered" by the Islamic militants' "unworthy and odious blackmail".  

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood condemned the hostage-taking, while in Iraq a strict Wahhabist group and the country's most senior Sunni Muslim scholars, the Committee of Ulemas, called for the immediate release of the two men.  

But both Iraqi groups also called on France to reconsider its decision to ban conspicuous religious insignia like Islamic veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in the classroom.  

The government introduced the law to stop what it saw as an increasingly radical stance by some students to assert their religious identity in schools in violation of a principle that such institutions should be strictly secular.  

Kidnappings of journalists and other foreigners have become common in Iraq as insurgents attempt to force countries to withdraw their troops from the war-ravaged country or extort money.  

The Italian journalist Baldoni was killed after being held for a week, Al-Jazeera had reported. His captors had threatened to execute him unless Italy withdrew its 3,000 troops from Iraq within 48 hours.  

The two hostages' employers said late Sunday they saw signs of hope following talks they held with Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.  

"It's clearly an extraordinarily complicated situation in which, fortunately, there is room for hope," said Radio France boss Jean-Paul Cluzel.




Subject: French news

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