French Muslim envoys raise hopes for hostages

2nd September 2004, Comments 0 comments

BAGHDAD, Sept 2 (AFP) - A French Muslim group voiced confidence Thursday that two French journalists held hostage in Iraq would be freed as France pursued diplomatic efforts to save the lives of the men.

BAGHDAD, Sept 2 (AFP) - A French Muslim group voiced confidence Thursday that two French journalists held hostage in Iraq would be freed as France pursued diplomatic efforts to save the lives of the men.  

But three Turkish hostages in Iraq were reportedly killed by their kidnappers in a jarring reminder of the high stakes for the journalists - Le Figaro reporter Georges Malbrunot and Radio France correspondent Christian Chesnot.  

A deadline for France to revoke a controversial ban introduced Thursday on the Islamic headscarf in state schools has passed with no word from the self-styled Islamic Army of Iraq which seized Chesnot and Malbrunot on August 20.  

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was back in Amman, as he shuttled between Arab capitals appealing for help in securing the release of the two reporters being held by an extremist group, implicated in a string of abductions and beheadings.  

On an urgent mission, a delegation from the French Council for the Muslim Faith (CFCM) flew in to Baghdad and pronounced its optimism after holding talks with influential religious leaders.  

"We leave with confidence and full of hope," delegation chief Abdullah Zekhri told AFP.  

"The kidnappers wish to free them but they do not know how to do it because they are afraid about the Americans and also that the hostages could fall into the hands of another group. These are the obstacles to freeing them."  

The flurry of activity came as Arabic-language satellite television Al-Jazeera said it had a video showing the execution of three Turkish hostages in Iraq.  

Police and medical officers in Iraq told AFP that the bullet-riddled bodies of three Turkish drivers had been found on the roadside outside the rebel bastion of Samarra north of Baghdad, possibly the hostages.  

In Ankara, a Turkish official said the Al-Jazeera report about the execution of the men - held by a group linked to alleged Al-Qaeda operative Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi - "seems credible."  

Al-Jazeera said the Tawhid wal Jihad group had threatened in a statement to kill foreigners in Iraq and warned: "The time for mercy is over."  

Islamist militants have captured dozens of foreigners in a bid to destabilise efforts by the interim Iraqi government and US troops to restore security to the violence-torn country.  

The capture of the two French journalists has drawn international condemnation and unprecedented appeals for their release from Muslim leaders across the globe.  

Another member of the French Muslim delegation, Fouad Allaoui, also sounded upbeat after talks with the influential Council of the Muslim Ulema (scholars), an association of conservative Sunni clerics who have helped mediate previous hostage releases in Iraq.  

"There are many reasons to be confident and not the contrary. Our mission is finished and I believe it was not in vain."  

A member of the delegation told Le Figaro the visit showed their solidarity to the French state despite the controversy over the head scarves ban.  

"We want to show our attachment to the republic, to the nation and to French society. Everyone must understand that laying a hand on a member of French society affects all French people, all members of the Muslim community," Mohammed Bechari told the newspaper.  

The hostages warned in a video that they faced death if France did not revoke the headscarf law, but Paris has vowed to stand its ground saying it must protect the country's strictly secular traditions.  

The law prohibiting the wearing of headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious insignia such as Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses went into effect Thursday with the start of the academic year in France.  

"We are evaluating the situation moment by moment," said a diplomatic source in Amman.  

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has also been to Egypt and Qatar where he met with political and religious leaders on the crisis.  

French officials were "nearly certain" late Wednesday that the two reporters were still alive, Le Figaro editor-in-chief Jean de Belot told media Thursday, adding that he was holding out "cautious hope" for the two men.  

But de Belot steered clear of any prediction when they might be released, telling AFP the complicated situation on the ground was disturbing.  

Another seven hostages from Kenya, India and Egypt were released on Wednesday after their Kuwaiti employer paid a half a million dollar ransom but 12 Nepalese workers have been killed by their captors.



Subject: French news

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