France intensifies effortsfor hostages' release

31st August 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Aug 31 (AFP) - The French government on Tuesday intensified efforts to secure the release of two journalists held hostage by Islamic militants in Iraq, a day after they were shown on Arabic television pleading for their lives.

PARIS, Aug 31 (AFP) - The French government on Tuesday intensified efforts to secure the release of two journalists held hostage by Islamic militants in Iraq, a day after they were shown on Arabic television pleading for their lives.  

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin summoned a ministerial crisis meeting to discuss the latest developments, following the reported decision by the Islamic Army in Iraq to extend by 24 hours its ultimatum to the French government to repeal a law banning headscarves in schools.  

After his trip to Egypt on Monday, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier continued to put out urgent diplomatic feelers in the Middle East, holding talks with his Jordanian counterpart Marwan Moasher before a planned meeting with King Abdullah II.  

And President Jacques Chirac was closely monitoring events from the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, where he was holding an informal meeting with President Vladimir Putin and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of Germany.  

"I renew my solemn appeal for their freedom ... We are entirely concentrated on the effort aimed at securing their release," he said there.  

Appearing on Al-Jazeera satellite channel Monday evening, the two hostages - Christian Chesnot of Radio France and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper - called on the government to revoke the headscarf ban which is due to come into effect at the start of the school term on Thursday.  

"Failure to revoke it might cost us our lives. It's a question of time - maybe minutes - before we are among the dead," Chesnot said.  

The death threat hanging over the journalists has set off a wave of outrage across France, uniting left and right as well as Muslims and non-Muslims. The shock is the greater because France's hostility to the war in Iraq was widely seen as giving a measure of protection.  

With the Arab and Islamic worlds also unanimous in condemning the kidnapping, there was hope that the growing moral pressure could influence the hostage-takers. Last week the same group murdered an Italian journalist after Rome refused to withdraw troops from Iraq.  

"We cannot understand why two journalists, symbols of freedom of expression and information, have been taken hostage when our country has always forcefully expressed the need to respect the law in order to achieve peace in Iraq," said Culture and Communications Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres.  

"The government is like the French people - mobilised, united, anxious," he said.  

Thousands of people including politicians, well-known journalists and religious leaders took part in demonstrations Monday evening in support of the hostages, and a prayer meeting was planned Tuesday afternoon at the main mosque in Paris. Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin was to attend.  

Among those who have condemned the hostage-taking most vocally are leading opponents of the headscarf ban, who say now that the law has been passed democratically it must be obeyed.  

"We are all hostages in this affair," said Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the Union of Islamic Organisations of France.   

"Many girls feel at a loss, divided between their religious convictions and the desire to pursue their education normally. That is why we advise them not to wear the headscarf. Nothing conspicuous, as the law states," he said.  

Education Minister Francois Fillon restated the government's insistence that the law will be applied regardless of the kidnappers' threat, but stressed that its aim was not to target Islam but to "defend each person's freedom of conscience."  

He said girls who arrive at school on Thursday wearing an Islamic headscarf will not be automatically excluded because the law stipulates a period of dialogue with the school authorities and a Muslim mediator.  

The hostage crisis has provoked mixed reactions from abroad. For some commentators it is a wake-up call to France that its much-vaunted opposition to US policy in Iraq and friendship with the Arab world do not make it immune from Islamic extremism.  

For others the national outcry is an example to other countries who have seen nationals taken hostage.




Subject: French news



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