France rejects 'absurd' Taliban hostage spy claims

1st January 2011, Comments 0 comments

France rejected as "absurd" Saturday Taliban claims that two French journalists held hostage in Afghanistan for more than a year may have been spying, and said it was committed to securing their release.

A Taliban spokesman accused France earlier Saturday of not paying "much attention" to its demands for the release of Herve Ghesquiere and Stephane Taponier, whom it said had been intelligence gathering rather than reporting.

French authorities "categorically deny the absurd accusation of spying made against our compatriots," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Ghesquiere and Taponier were merely two journalists kidnapped while carrying out their work, it said.

"For a year, there have been constant talks to allow our compatriots to return to their families safe and sound," it said.

"The determination of the French authorities remains unbroken today and, as the president (Nicolas Sarkozy) recalled on Friday, we will continue to mobilise all our efforts until the day they are freed," it said.

The pair were captured on December 30, 2009 with three Afghan colleagues while travelling without a military escort in an area northwest of Kabul known as a stronghold of anti-government Islamic militants such as the Taliban.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP Saturday that his group had presented the French government with conditions for their release but "unfortunately they have not paid much attention".

They were taken because "they had come to the area without our permission," he said.

"Second, they were engaged in gathering information that has the nature of intelligence gathering. The information and documents recovered from them suggest they were after intelligence gathering."

France Televisions, which includes the France 3 chain for which the men work, said suggestions that Ghesquiere and Taponier had been spying were "baseless and ridiculous".

The journalists were trying to interview Afghan civilians for a report and did not want to get in contact with the Taliban, France Televisions deputy managing editor Thierry Thuillier told the RTL broadcaster.

"There was therefore no risk they wanted to spy on them (Taliban)," he said.

Thuillier said the Taliban statement could be an attempt to put pressure on France more than a year after the journalists were captured.

"It is perhaps a ways of saying 'let's hurry things up'," he said, adding the militants could also be aware of questions in France about the government's efforts to free the men.

A support committee for Ghesquiere and Taponier said the suggestions of espionage were "completely uncalled for and baseless".

"We assert loud and clear that our friends are really journalists," spokeswoman Patricia Philibert told AFP. "Journalists always ask difficult questions, that is how we know that they are good journalists."

Philibert did however question the will of the French authorities in negotiating an end to the ordeal.

The one-year anniversary of the hostage-taking was marked in Paris on Wednesday with events that included the projection of the journalists' faces onto the Arc de Triomphe.

© 2011 AFP

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