Barnier in Mideast appeal for releaseof French hostages

30th August 2004, Comments 0 comments

CAIRO, Aug 30 (AFP) - French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier made an impassioned plea Monday for the lives of two French journalists held hostage in Iraq as an ultimatum issued by their Islamic kidnappers neared expiry.

CAIRO, Aug 30 (AFP) - French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier made an impassioned plea Monday for the lives of two French journalists held hostage in Iraq as an ultimatum issued by their Islamic kidnappers neared expiry.  

Barnier, on an emergency mission to the Middle East, said a top diplomat had been dispatched from Paris to Baghdad to press for the release of the two men who went missing 10 days ago.  

But his government has vowed not to bow to the demands of the kidnappers, a group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq, which wants France to revoke a controversial law banning the Islamic headscarf in state schools.  

The Islamic Army issued a 48-hour ultimatum to France over the headscarf ban late Saturday although it did not specifically threaten the two newsmen.  

The kidnapping has stunned France, which was one of the fiercest opponents of the US-led war on Iraq and has resolved not to send any troops to the country, even in a peacekeeping capacity.  

"These two journalists, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, are doing their job in Iraq to explain to the world, describe the reality of the situation and the difficult living conditions of the Iraqi people," Barnier said at a press conference in Cairo.  

"These two men of goodwill have always shown their understanding for these people and their fondness for the Arab and Muslim world.  

"I call for their release in the name of principles of humanity and respect for the human being which are at the very heart of the message of Islam and the religious practices of Muslims."  

Muslim leaders worldwide have also urged the Islamic Army, the same shadowy Sunni Muslim group that kidnapped and later killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni after Rome ignored demands to pull out its troops from Iraq, to free the two men.  

Barnier met leading Sunni televangelist Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi, who was holidaying here from his base in the Gulf, and secured his agreement to make an appeal on the widely watched Arabic satellite news channel Al-Jazeera for the French hostages' release, diplomats said.

An outspoken Islamist, who was stripped of his Egyptian nationality by the defiantly secular regime of the 1950s and 1960s, Qaradawi has openly criticised the mainstream Sunni spiritual leadership for not opposing France's ban on the Islamic headscarf but has also held out against any resort to violence.  

Iraqi Prime Minister Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said the abduction showed that no country could remain neutral in Iraq.   "Neutrality doesn't exist, as the kidnapping of the French journalists has shown," Allawi told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra. "The French are deluding themselves if they think they can remain outside of this. Today, the extremists are targeting them too."  

Chesnot of Radio France and Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper disappeared in Iraq on August 20, the day they were to have left Baghdad for the Shiite holy city of Najaf, then the scene of fierce fighting between US forces and Shiite militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada Sadr.  

On Saturday Arabic-language Al-Jazeera television broadcast images of the two men - both Middle East experts with years of experience in the region - along with the ultimatum from the Islamic Army.  

In Paris, the foreign ministry said its outgoing secretary general, Hubert Colin de Verdiere, just named ambassador to Algeria, had arrived in the Iraqi capital.   But French government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said the headscarf ban would come into effect as planned at the start of the academic year on Thursday.  

"The law will be applied," Cope told Canal Plus television.   

Approved earlier this year, the French law bans the wearing of all "conspicuous" religious insignia in public schools and is meant to reinforce the strict separation between religion and state.  

Although all religious signs are covered by the prohibition - including Jewish Stars of David and large Christian crosses - French Muslims believe they are the main target of the law and there has been an angry reaction among many in the community of five million.  

After a series of crisis meetings on Sunday, French President Jacques Chirac dispatched Barnier to the region to explain the government's position and try to secure the release of the men.



Subject: French news

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