French hostages' fate hangs by a threadone month on

17th September 2004, Comments 0 comments

BAGHDAD, Sept 17 (AFP) - A month after their capture in Iraq and in spite of relentless diplomatic networking by Paris, the fate of French reporters Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot appears more uncertain than ever.

BAGHDAD, Sept 17 (AFP) - A month after their capture in Iraq and in spite of relentless diplomatic networking by Paris, the fate of French reporters Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot appears more uncertain than ever.  

The Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), an extremist group following the ultra-conservative Wahhabi current of Islam, claimed responsibility for their capture.   Their whereabouts were still unknown on Friday, with cautious French authorities only assuring that they were alive and in good health.  

At the request of the hostages' families, French embassy staff on Thursday collected the belongings of Malbrunot, a correspondent for French national radio, and Chesnot, a reporter for Le Figaro newspaper - from the Al-Dulaimi hotel where the pair had been staying.  

Some sources have said the hostages are being held in Baghdad, others have insisted they are in Fallujah, a theocratic enclave west of Baghdad controlled by radical Sunni Muslim insurgents.  

Since the two journalists and their Syrian driver, Mohammed al-Jundi, were snatched on the perilous road heading south from Baghdad on August 20, Iraq's hostage crisis has escalated and the kidnapping of foreigners has become a tool systematically used by extremist groups.  

Their kidnapping marked a new development in the wave of abductions, that started in April and had till then mainly targeted nationals from countries belonging to the US-led coalition.  

France, in contrast, was a leading and vocal opponent of the war on Iraq.   Demands had generally centred on the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, but the IAI handed Paris an ultimatum requesting it scrap a controversial ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in state schools.  

France rejected the demand, which was the first time extremist groups attempted to influence the internal politics of a foreign country, and it prompted a barrage of international condemnation.  

A statement posted on the militant organisation's website on September 8 said a decision would be announced soon on the fate of the two hostages.   

A similar message, announcing a "verdict within a few days", was reportedly posted by the IAI on Wednesday.  

The message said France was the "enemy of Islam", a statement that crushed hopes that messages of support for France's anti-war stance coming from Muslim institutions worldwide had tipped the balance.  

France deployed its full diplomatic arsenal in the days immediately after the capture, with Foreign Minister Michel Barnier shuttling back and forth among Middle Eastern capitals for several days and delegations lobbying in Baghdad for the newsmen's release.  

Hopes of an imminent release were raised several times by declarations from officials, clerics, media outlets and self-declared mediators or Islamic experts.  

But a month down the road negotiations appear to have ground to a near halt.  

The vast campaign launched by the French foreign ministry managed to unite France's large Muslim community, but the IAI has nothing but contempt for many of the religious and political leaders who lent their support to the cause.  

The process undertaken by France to secure the release of the pair also revealed simmering bitterness between Paris on the one side and Iraq's interim government and the US military on the other.  

Some negotiators had voiced fears that the stepped up military onslaught against insurgent targets in the Fallujah area could wreck days of efforts to win the freedom of Chesnot and Malbrunot.  

And speaking to AFP on Friday, a senior official for the Committee of the Ulema, the most prominent Sunni organisation in Iraq, accused the US military of intentionally impeding release efforts.  

"We are under the impression that the American forces do not want the hostages to be freed," Doctor Mohammed Ayash al-Kubaisi said.  

The mouthpiece of hawkish Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's party published an editorial saying France only had itself to blame for letting the security situation deteriorate by not sending troops to the troubled country.



Subject: French News

0 Comments To This Article