French reporters mark 100 days in detention

26th November 2004, Comments 0 comments

BAGHDAD, Nov 26 (AFP) - French reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who marked their 100th day in captivity on Saturday, are now the longest-held Western hostages in Iraq as French diplomatic efforts to free them continue to flounder.

BAGHDAD, Nov 26 (AFP) - French reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who marked their 100th day in captivity on Saturday, are now the longest-held Western hostages in Iraq as French diplomatic efforts to free them continue to flounder.

The date coincides with a vast US-led operation in the so-called "triangle of death" south of Baghdad where the two journalists were abducted on August 20 as they were driving to the holy Shiite city of Najaf.

"One hundred days, but it could be eternity," said the secretary-general of media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF, Reporters Without Borders) Robert Menard, who claimed recently that the two were still alive two weeks ago.

Their exact whereabouts remain unknown but the little information available on their fate indicates they could still be held in Latifiyah, a lawless Sunni rebel enclave just 25 miles (40 kilometres) from Baghdad.

An Egyptian trucker who was released on November 13 said he had been briefly detained in a room in Latifiyah next door to two Frenchmen and that he believed they were still there when he was released.

"I was kidnapped on October 20 and held afterwards at a house in Latifiyah where two Frenchmen were in the next room and whose voices I heard," 47-year-old Ahmed Abdul Aziz Mohammed said.

"I heard the kidnappers talking at night in another nearby room. One of them said 'Let's take the Frenchmen to Fallujah,' but another one said 'no, it is too dangerous'," he recounted.

The rebel bastion of Fallujah has been devastated by a huge US-led operation to root out the insurgency ahead of January polls.

During the onslaught, US marines found the two journalists' Syrian driver, Mohammed al-Jundi, who was kidnapped at the same time but had been detained separately since early September.

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 are dressed in white shirts," said Malbrunot's brother, Bernard.

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.

Speaking from a summit of francophone nations in Burkina Faso, President Jacques Chirac vowed to continue to work for their safe release, and praised their families for showing restraint throughout the months-long ordreal.

"On the eve of this anniversary, I wish to say that, naturally, the French authorities are doing everything possible" to ensure the men's release, Chirac said in an interview with Radio France Internationale, Chesnot's employer.

"I would like to paid tribute to the families of George Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot because their dignified behaviour has certainly been the best guarantee of seeing them return home," he added.

Chirac said however he had no new information about the men's whereabouts.

Hopes the two men 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.

Initial French diplomatic efforts to free the hostages failed, despite Paris's good relations in the Arab world and opposition to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Poland and Italy, two of the largest troop contributors in the US-led coalition, managed to free hostages, while France's so-called "turban diplomacy" appeared to flounder.

French officials have insisted for weeks now that the principle of their release has been secured but it remains unclear what is delaying their deliverance. The problem appears to stem from divisions within their captors' group.

According to sources close to the negotiations for their release, the Islamic Army in Iraq includes foreigners in its ranks who remain opposed to freeing the Frenchmen.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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