France sceptical over new demands for release of hostages

7th September 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Sept 6 (AFP) - The captors of two French journalists allegedly put forward Monday new demands for their release, but French officials cast doubt on the authenticity of the demands and remained cautiously optimistic about securing their release.

PARIS, Sept 6 (AFP) - The captors of two French journalists allegedly put forward Monday new demands for their release, but French officials cast doubt on the authenticity of the demands and remained cautiously optimistic about securing their release.  

A statement purportedly from the Islamic Army of Iraq posted on an Islamist website gave France 48 hours to accept three new conditions for the release of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot: agreeing to a recent truce offer by Osama bin Laden, payment of five million dollars ransom and a pledge not to get involved in Iraq.  

But French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin expressed scepticism over the alleged new demands, saying they had yet to be authenticated.  

Raffarin told RTL radio that French authorities "always take this kind of information seriously" but added: "The claims have been met with a lot of scepticism from experts."  

"We are trying to verify the validity of these claims. For the moment, that has not happened," the prime minister said at the start of a debate with opposition Socialist leader Francois Hollande.  

"Today, nothing brings into question the confidence we have about achieving a positive outcome" to the hostage drama, Raffarin said, urging continued caution.  

Chesnot, 37, of Radio France Internationale, Malbrunot, 41, of the daily Le Figaro and their Syrian driver were taken hostage on August 20 by the Islamic Army of Iraq, which demanded that France rescind a ban on Islamic headscarves in state schools.  

Paris refused to back down, mobilizing an unprecedented campaign of support for the two journalists in the Arab world and bringing the headscarf law into effect as planned on Thursday with the start of the school year.  

In Pristina meanwhile, on a visit to Kosovo, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said he was confident of a positive outcome.  

"As I speak to you now I believe there is a possibility for a positive solution," he told a news conference. But he also reiterated that France was working with extreme caution.  

Barnier, who had hoped to secure the release of the journalists during a trip to the Middle East last week, declined to comment on the demand for USD 5 million (EUR 4.15 million) from a group that had previously expressed political demands.  

"There are a lot of rumours going around but I will not comment no them. We continue to work with caution, prudence and discretion for the security of the journalists and their release," he said.  

European leaders have already dismissed the supposed Al-Qaeda truce offer made by bin Laden in April, which promised no attacks in European countries that refrained from attacks against Muslims and pulled their troops out of the Islamic world within three months.  

A senior cleric from the strict Wahhabi current of Islam in Iraq on Sunday issued a fatwa (Islamic decree) demanding the captors of the two French reporters free them immediately.  

But Sheikh Mehdi al-Sumaidaie, an influential figure among the extremist Sunni organizations responsible for the bulk of kidnappings in Iraq lately, also lambasted the Iraqi government and US forces for staging a raid Saturday in Latifiya in the area where the pair was kidnapped, saying it had harmed efforts for their release.  

"The attack on Latifiya disrupted the process of their release," he said.  

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari reiterated on Monday the US-backed interim government's willingness to help secure the release of Chesnot and Malbrunot.  

"The Iraqi government is willing and ready to provide the French government with everything possible to help it free the hostages and return them safely to their families and their homes," Zebari told a news conference in the Jordanian capital Amman.  

He said the government had made no statements about the hostages to avoid complicating talks for the release.  

"We did not want to interfere in a very delicate subject while negotiations were under way between the French government and the kidnappers or other parties," said Zebari.

© AFP

 

Subject: French News

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