French journalists mark 60th day in Iraq captivity

18th October 2004, Comments 0 comments

BAGHDAD, Oct 18 (AFP) - Two French journalists abducted in Iraq marked their 60th day in captivity on Monday, with an agonising uncertainty persisting over the pair's fate despite intense diplomatic efforts for their release.

BAGHDAD, Oct 18 (AFP) - Two French journalists abducted in Iraq marked their 60th day in captivity on Monday, with an agonising uncertainty persisting over the pair's fate despite intense diplomatic efforts for their release.

Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot were seized along with their Syrian driver Mohammed al-Jundi on August 20 on the highway between Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

France, taken aback that French nationals were potential kidnap victims despite its stringent opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq, embarked on a string of efforts to locate the hostages and obtain their liberation.

But despite calls from French leaders, Arab satellite television stations, and Iraqi clerics for their release, the pair remain in the hands of their captors.

Hopes they would be released have been dashed several times, most notably when French lawmaker Didier Julia unwisely announced at the end of last month that their liberation was imminent.

Uncorroborated information has further complicated a precarious situation, with rumours circulating of suitcases stuffed with cash for mediators being passed from hand to hand.

A statement on an Islamist website demanding a USD 5 million ransom was declared false by the hostage takers, a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq. It is not certain where they are being held.

The French government announced last week that it believed the hostages were still alive and added that indirect contacts had been resumed with the kidnappers.

According to an expert on Sunni Arab militant groups who did not wish to be identified, the captors are "under considerable pressure" to release the pair, but want to find a way to free them without losing face.

Meanwhile, the kidnapping has further underlined the tensions that still remain between France and the US administration as well as the interim Iraqi government.

Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi vehemently criticised French President Jacques Chirac at the start of September, saying the abduction was the result of Paris's "refusal to participate in re-establishing security" in Iraq.

A member of the Committee of Muslim Scholars, Iraq's main Sunni religious organisation which has been involved in negotiating the release of hostages, expressed fear that the tactics of the US military were impeding the release of the journalists.

"Every time that we get closer to a solution, the forces escalate the military situation" in the Sunni strongholds west of Baghdad, said the official, Mohammed Ayash al-Qubeisi.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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