French reporters enter fourth month in captivity

18th November 2004, Comments 0 comments

BAGHDAD, Nov 18 (AFP) - French reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot will start their fourth month as hostages in Iraq on Saturday, with their fate still unknown after their Syrian driver was found by US marines in the restive city of Fallujah.

BAGHDAD, Nov 18 (AFP) - French reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot will start their fourth month as hostages in Iraq on Saturday, with their fate still unknown after their Syrian driver was found by US marines in the restive city of Fallujah.

The French government has recently obtained information that the two reporters are no longer detained in Fallujah, the western Iraqi former rebel stronghold which US-led forces recaptured this week after a massive assault.

"The indication that we have, that we think is correct, is that they managed to be moved from a dangerous combat area to other zones. I cannot say more than that," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said Wednesday.

"From all the indirect contacts that we have set up ... we infer the confirmation that the lives of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot are not in danger. The question remains when they will be freed, and we are working towards that moment," he added.

Chesnot and Malbrunot, were respectively working for Radio France International and Le Figaro newspaper when they were abducted on the road to the southern Shiite city of Najaf on August 20.

According to a source close to negotiations for the newsmen's release, a mediator contacted the French embassy in Baghdad on November 9 to assure the authorities that the pair was still alive and in good health. He did not provide material proof to back his claims.

A source close to the Iraqi insurgency told AFP that the reporters were moved to Baghdad shortly after being kidnapped, while their Syrian driver was kept in Fallujah, some 30 miles west of the capital.

French authorities could not confirm this information.

Barnier confirmed that Mohammed Al-Jundi, who was picked up and released by US forces after they found him during the assault on Fallujah, "made contact with French authorities" and was now in a safe location.

But he refused to confirm a report by Robert Menard, head of the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres (Reporters Without Borders - RSF), that the driver had taken shelter in the French embassy in Baghdad.

Al-Jundi told his brother-in-law that he had been separated from the two French reporters after only two weeks and that he had no information on their whereabouts.

The last material evidence that the two were in good health dates back to October 3, when a video was released to French authorities and shown to their relatives, who said they didn't appear too physically weakened by their detention.

In the video Chesnot and Malbrunot "appear side by side, they don't look too thin or tired, and were dressed in white shirts," said Malbrunot's brother Bernard.

"My brother said that his name is Georges Malbrunot, that he works for Le Figaro and that the date is October 3rd ... and that they are in good health," he said, adding that the foreign ministry gave the families the video a couple of weeks later.

Their capture was claimed by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq, which had called on Paris to scrap a controversial ban on wearing religious headscarves in state schools.

Hopes they would be released have been dashed several times, most notably when French lawmaker and self-appointed mediator Didier Julia announced during a September trip to Syria that their liberation was imminent.

When asked Wednesday whether a ransom had been demanded by the Frenchmen's captors, Barnier simply said: "These issues were not broached in the discussions we have engaged."

© AFP

Subject: French News

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