Heroes' welcome set for French hostages

22nd December 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 22 (AFP) - Two French journalists freed by insurgents in Iraq after being held hostage for four months were on their way back Wednesday to a rapturous homecoming in Paris, where the government said tireless diplomacy - and no ransom - secured their release.

PARIS, Dec 22 (AFP) - Two French journalists freed by insurgents in Iraq after being held hostage for four months were on their way back Wednesday to a rapturous homecoming in Paris, where the government said tireless diplomacy - and no ransom - secured their release.

French President Jacques Chirac summed up the nation's "joy" that reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were on their way to France, via a stopover in Cyprus, and stressed: "They have gone through a very tough ordeal."

The pair, kidnapped south of Baghdad on August 20 and released Tuesday by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq, left Iraq early Wednesday and were expected to arrive at a military airbase outside Paris around 6:00 pm (1700 GMT), to be greeted personally by Chirac.

Jubilation swept France, where a feeling of solidarity and constant campaigns kept the journalists' plight in the public eye throughout their detention.

"The nightmare is over, we are going to be able to resume a normal life," Malbrunot's 70-year-old mother, Andree, told AFP at her home in central France.

"We're going to have a happy Christmas."

Christian Chesnot's brother Thierry said: "This is a huge relief. It's a wonderful Christmas present."

The Islamic Army in Iraq said it released the journalists because of France's stand against the US-led invasion of Iraq and the pair's support for Palestinian statehood, according to a statement given to Al-Jazeera television.

It had also been proved they were not spying for US forces in Iraq, it added. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told political leaders Wednesday that his government did not pay a ransom for the journalists.

"He was very clear. We can consider this to be the word of the prime minister," the leader of the French Communist Party in the senate, Nicole Borvo, told media after the meeting.

Raffarin stated there was "neither a demand nor a payment" of a ransom, she said.

Chirac, in a televised address, said: "Their release we owe to the mobilisation and solidarity of all the French, to whom I want to pay homage."

The president, who cut a Moroccan vacation short to return to Paris to greet the journalists, also credited their freedom to "the responsible and tenacious action of the government and all the services which mobilised with determination and efficiency."

Chesnot, 37, a freelancer working for Radio France Internationale, and Malbrunot, 41, who filed for leading French daily Le Figaro, flew out of Baghdad airport on a French air force Hercules transport Wednesday after spending the night in the Iraqi capital.

They were flown to Cyprus, where a smaller, 14-seat air force jet dispatched from Paris early Wednesday with Foreign Minister Michel Barnier on board was to pick them up for the four-hour trip to Villacoublay air base.

Photographs of the pair filled the front pages of all French newspapers Wednesday under headlines reading "Free!" and "Finally!" while television and radio news broadcasts covered the development in length.

Giant pictures of the pair that had been set up outside the capital's Town Hall for most of their detention were also taken down.

The country had felt its opposition to the US-led war on Iraq and traditionally good ties with Arab states should have earned it greater sympathy from insurgents who have taken to targeting all foreigners as part of a bloody campaign to drive the US forces out.

But as the weeks dragged on - resulting in Chesnot and Malbrunot becoming the longest-held Western hostages in Iraq - a sense of national solidarity grew in which even representatives of France's five-million strong Muslim community displayed strong support for the government.

Paris repeatedly said it was working towards their release with "discretion" but gave no details of any progress after the failure of an unofficial mission by an Arabic-speaking MP in September.

The Islamic Army in Iraq's only demand relating to the French hostages was that Paris repeal a law banning Islamic headscarves in French state schools. The French government refused, and that law came into effect in September.

Iraq's ambassador in France, Mowafak Abbud, claimed "joint efforts" between his government and Paris "made a significant contribution to this release" and expressed hope bilateral relations would now improve.

The journalists' Syrian driver Mohammad al-Jundi, captured at the same time as Chesnot and Malbrunot, was found in Fallujah on November 12 after US-led forces launched an offensive to clear the city of rebels. He has threatened to sue US soldiers for maltreatment.

Jundi, who watched the portraits of the journalists being taken down at the Town Hall, told journalists he was "very happy" at their release.

"For them it is the first day of a new birth," he said.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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