French 'negotiator' claimshostage releases close

29th September 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Sept 29 (AFP) - Paris on Wednesday remained tight-lipped about the fate of two French journalists abducted over a month ago in Iraq following the release of up to 10 hostages there, including two Italian female aid workers.

PARIS, Sept 29 (AFP) - Paris on Wednesday remained tight-lipped about the fate of two French journalists abducted over a month ago in Iraq following the release of up to 10 hostages there, including two Italian female aid workers.  

Hopes were raised for the release of Radio France correspondent Christian Chesnot and Le Figaro reporter Georges Malbrunot after the two Italian women, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta, were freed on Tuesday.  

A French national who claims he has seen the two journalists and that an agreement has been reached for their release told AFP on Wednesday that he was waiting for US authorization to extract the pair by air.  

"We have asked President Jacques Chirac to contact the Americans and obtain clearance for an air corridor. If we get a green light, the release will be immediate," Philippe Brett, who is in Iraq, said by telephone.  

The French foreign ministry has so far denied any knowledge of a deal or of Brett's purported mediation efforts, saying it was maintaining "total discretion" on the issue.   Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope qualified Brett's claims about the two Frenchmen as "rumour", adding: "The government is working with determination to obtain their release. You'll understand that I can't say any more."  

Chesnot, Malbrunot and their Syrian driver Mohammed al-Jundi were abducted on August 20 south of Baghdad by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq.  

The shadowy organization initially demanded that Paris rescind a ban on the wearing of Islamic headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious insignia in state schools, but France implemented the law as planned in early September.  

In the days immediately following the kidnapping, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier spearheaded a high-profile diplomatic campaign to secure the release of the two journalists, shuttling between Middle Eastern capitals.  

Hopes of an imminent release were raised several times by declarations from officials, Muslim clerics, media outlets and self-declared mediators or Islamic experts, but nearly six weeks later, the newsmen are still in captivity.  

On Tuesday, Brett told Al-Arabiya television via telephone from Baghdad that he had seen Chesnot and Malbrunot, and that "both are in good health, (also) psychologically."  

He told the Dubai-based network he and the kidnappers had reached a deal on "two things. First, the liberation of Christian and Georges. Second, to receive an audiotape from them personally announcing they will be released soon."  

Al-Arabiya quoted unspecified sources as saying that Chesnot and Malbrunot could be free within 48 hours.  

Brett is not an official French government envoy but an assistant to French MP Didier Julia, who has for years been involved in Middle East affairs and sits on a parliamentary commission studying Iraqi issues.  

He said Wednesday that if US authorization for a secure air corridor was not forthcoming, "we have other options which will take more time and could lead to a release in three, four or five days."  

Beyond the two Italians, their two Iraqi colleagues, an Iranian diplomat and up to five Egyptian hostages were released in a 24-hour period.  

Amid reports that Rome paid a USD 1 million (EUR 810,000) ransom for the release of the two Simonas - reports denied by Italian officials - the left-leaning French newspaper Liberation said kidnappings were often resolved in the shadows, not with public diplomacy.  

"We should not delude ourselves. While human life has no price, the life of a hostage does," Liberation said in a commentary.  

"For the moment, check book diplomacy seems to be more effective than the so-called 'turban diplomacy' that France had hoped, too quickly, would lead to the release of our peers Chesnot, Malbrunot and their Syrian colleague.  

"But the success, or failure, of France's efforts can only be judged once the ultimate fate of the three hostages is known."

 

© AFP

Subject: French News

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