Hostages' release stalls

6th September 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Sept 5 (AFP) - Unexpected difficulties appeared Sunday to have stalled the hoped-for release of two French journalists in Iraq, with a girlfriend of one of the hostages blaming the precarious security situation for the delay.

PARIS, Sept 5 (AFP) - Unexpected difficulties appeared Sunday to have stalled the hoped-for release of two French journalists in Iraq, with a girlfriend of one of the hostages blaming the precarious security situation for the delay.  

In Iraq, a senior Muslim cleric told AFP that a US-led raid had "disrupted the process of their release," but that he had issued a fatwa, or a religious ruling, calling for their immediate freedom.  

In Paris, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and a restricted circle of senior cabinet colleagues were briefed by Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, who returned to France late Saturday after five days in the Middle East.  

Barnier had earlier reported on the situation to President Jacques Chirac, and afterwards told journalists the hostages were "in good health and a positive outcome is still possible."  

After the meeting with Raffarin, French government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said that "in view of the information we have at our disposal ... we want to believe that a favourable outcome is possible.  

"That is why the government continues to work with confidence but also with much caution for the liberation of our two compatriots."  

His comments were markedly toned down from previous statements which had indicated that the release of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, held in Iraq since August 20, was only a matter of time after their captors seemed to back down from their death threat.  

Optimistic predictions last week of their release by the weekend have been confounded, as unverifiable rumours proliferated over new conditions being set by the hostage-takers or of disagreements between hardliners and moderates on whether they should be released at all.  

Chesnot, 37, Malbrunot, 41, and their Syrian driver were taken prisoner by an extremist group called the Islamic Army in Iraq, which later demanded that France rescind a controversial law banning Islamic headscarves and other "conspicuous" religious signs from state schools.  

The captors appeared to back down after France mobilised an unprecedented campaign of condemnation. On Thursday the headscarf law came into effect unchallenged, and on the same day it was reported the two hostages had been handed over to intermediaries.   

Sylvie Cherpin, the girlfriend of Le Figaro correspondent Georges Malbrunot, said that the militants have agreed to release the French journalists, but it is being delayed by security problems on the ground.  

"There is an agreement to release them," she told journalists.  

"But the guerrilla situation is preventing their release. It is dangerous, there is shooting from all sides," she said, quoting the explanation given to her by French authorities by telephone on Saturday.  

She said she expected the pair to be freed in the coming week, adding: "I hope it is a question of time and that there won't be any problems."  

A senior cleric with influence among extremist Sunni Muslim groups, Sheikh Mehdi al-Sumaidaie, told AFP Sunday that a US-Iraqi raid Saturday on the town of Latifiya had "disrupted the process of their release."  

However the cleric, who adheres to the austere Wahhabi current in Islam, also said he had issued a fatwa "urging the group to immediately free and not to harm the two French reporters, in recognition of France's position on Iraq."  

The French government has secured condemnation of the hostage-takers from across the whole of the Arab and Islamic world - including from extremist groups such as Hamas, as well as its own Muslim community.  

Barnier, who travelled to Egypt, Qatar and Jordan on his mission for the captives, pointedly failed to visit Baghdad - an omission which was seen as a sign of tense relations between the French and Iraqi governments.

 

 

© AFP

 

Subject: French news

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