Missing French journalist in Iraq begs for help

1st March 2005, Comments 0 comments

BAGHDAD, March 1 (AFP) - French journalist Florence Aubenas, missing for nearly two months in Iraq, on Tuesday made a desperate plea for help on a video broadcast, saying her health was "very bad."

BAGHDAD, March 1 (AFP) - French journalist Florence Aubenas, missing for nearly two months in Iraq, on Tuesday made a desperate plea for help on a video broadcast, saying her health was "very bad."

"I am French. I am a journalist with Liberation. Please help me. My health is very bad. I'm very bad psychologically also," the gaunt and exhausted-looking journalist pleaded in English on the undated video, of which AFP obtained a copy.

The 50-second film showed the veteran reporter for the left-wing daily wearing a pale long-sleeved top, seated on the floor with her knees bent against her chest.

It was the first confirmation that Aubenas was alive since she and her Iraqi translator Hussein Hanun al-Saadi - who is also still missing but was not shown on the tape - were last seen leaving their Baghdad hotel on January 5.

Another foreign reporter in Iraq, Giuliana Sgrena of Italy's Il Manifesto, was kidnapped early February in Baghdad and later appeared in a video begging for her life.

About 170 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq over the past year. More than 30 have been killed and the rest were released or escaped.

No group claimed responsibility for Aubenas' kidnapping in the tape, which was handed in to an international news agency in Baghdad.

The camera zoomed in and out several times, showing Aubenas, who previously covered conflicts in Kosovo, Algeria, Rwanda, and Afghanistan, looking dishevelled with her unwashed hair hanging down over her eyes.

"This is urgent now. Help me!" the 43-year-old hostage said. "I ask especially Mr Didier Julia, the French deputy. Please Mr Julia. Help me! It's urgent. Mr Julia help me!"

Julia, an Arabic-speaking MP in French President Jacques Chirac's ruling UMP party, headed a failed mission to free two other French reporters who were kidnapped in Iraq last August.

When Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper and Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale were finally handed over to French officials and returned home in December, they said Julia was "beneath contempt" for putting their lives in jeopardy.

French authorities roundly condemned Julia and put his two aides, Philippe Brett and Philippe Evanno, under criminal investigation for working with "a foreign power" - widely reported to possibly be Syria - and risking the lives of the two reporters.

One of Julia's fiercest critics, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier, was forced to leave the door open to asking Julia to respond to Aubenas' plea.

"Concerning the MP who was named (in the video), I believe he himself said that he was at the disposal of the French authorities. We are going to make the appropriate decisions after analysing the video," he said.

He revealed that the government had received another "proof of life" of Aubenas last week and that had been shown to her family.

Julia, contacted by AFP, said he was willing to help - but only if the government lifted restrictions on his aides.

"I am in a situation where I am 'paralysed'. It depends on the government, whether it will give me a free hand or not," he told AFP.

Julia said he did not "totally" know the group who might be holding Aubenas "but I have a small idea."

French intelligence experts were Tuesday analysing the video of Aubenas for clues at to when and where it was made.

"All the (ministry of) defence services are studying this video, which raises a lot of questions. Why is it receiving media attention? Why now? Why in this way. And why was Florence Aubenas made to ask for (French MP Didier) Julia's help," said a source close to the DGSE, France foreign intelligence service.

Aubenas's employer, Liberation editor-in-chief Serge July, said he was "shaken" by the video broadcast, but felt that the images should not be shown.

"It's better not to show them because they serve as propaganda for the hostage-takers."

The French-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it was disturbed by the Aubenas video.

"We found the video of Florence Aubenas and her appeal to be very disturbing," Reporters Without Borders said.

"We would like to concentrate on the fact that she is alive and that the recording contains no explicit threat or ultimatum. But the exhaustion and anxiety on her face is extremely worrying."

"We solemnly call on the kidnappers to release Florence and her assistant, Hussein Hanoun. Over and above the revulsion we feel for such abduction methods, our organisation appeals to the news media of the entire world, especially the Arab world, to help Florence and Hussein, as well as the kidnapped Italian journalist, Giuliana Sgrena," RSF said.

"The need at this time is for unity and to avoid controversy at all cost," it added".


Subject: French News

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