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Kidnappers extend deadline for French hostages
Updated: 2004-08-31 08:32

Militants holding two French journalists hostage in Iraq gave France another 24 hours on Monday to revoke its ban on Muslim headscarves in schools, Al Jazeera reported.

The Arabic TV station showed a tape of the journalists urging the French people to hold protests to persuade their government to retract the headscarf law, saying that otherwise they might be killed.

The French government said earlier there was no question of the ban being revoked. President Jacques Chirac planned to go ahead with a trip to Russia on Monday despite the crisis.

French reporter Georges Malbrunot (R) of Le Figaro and Ouest-France newspapers and French radio journalist Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale are shown in a recent photo. France scrambled to secure the freedom of the two journalists kidnapped by Iraqi militants, who gave Paris until Monday evening to drop its controversial ban on Muslim headscarves in schools. [Reuters]
"In response to the hostages' plea to give them a chance to deliver their message to their government, the Islamic Army in Iraq has decided to extend the deadline by 24 hours," Al Jazeera quoted a written statement from the kidnappers as saying.

The militant group, which declared last week it had killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, on Saturday gave the French government 48 hours to rescind the headscarf ban, without saying what would happen to the two Frenchmen if it failed to comply.

France has scrambled to save Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, both of whom spoke on the video tape.

"I call on President (Jacques) Chirac to... retract the veil ban immediately and I call on French people to protest the veil ban. It is a wrong and unjust law and we may die at any time," Chesnot said, according to Al Jazeera's translation into Arabic.

Chesnot and Malbrunot appeared calm in the video, seemed to have been shot in a room flooded with daylight.

"I appeal to the French people and each French citizen who values life to hold protests for this law on the veil ban to be canceled, because our life is in danger and we might die at any moment if the law doesn't get banned," Malbrunot said.

Thousands of people took to France's streets to call for the newsmen's release on Monday, many of them Muslim women in headscarves. Foreign Minister Michel Barnier visited Egypt as part of a mission to rally support in Iraq and the region.


"We will continue, come what may, to follow all contacts ... with civil and religious personalities to explain the reality of the French republic... and obtain the release of these people," he said in Cairo.

Iraqi Sunni and Shi'ite Muslim groups and Islamic groups outside Iraq urged the kidnappers to release the two, noting France's opposition to the U.S.-led Iraq war and saying journalists were not combatants.

The crisis stunned France, which campaigned against the 2003 invasion of Iraq and so had considered itself relatively safe from militant attack. France also opposed the 1990-2003 economic sanctions on Iraq.

Chesnot, of Radio France Internationale, and Malbrunot, who writes for the dailies Le Figaro and Ouest France, disappeared on Aug. 20 on their way from Baghdad to Najaf, the day after Baldoni was seized.

"Their kidnapping is incomprehensible to all those who know that France... is a land of tolerance and of respect for others," Barnier said, before meeting Arab League chief Amr Moussa and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.

"I urge everyone who has power, or has the capabilities, to set the journalists free as soon as possible so that the situation does not become more complicated," Moussa said.

Barnier said Foreign Ministry Secretary-General Hubert Colin de Verdiere arrived in Baghdad on Monday for crisis talks.

Islamic groups in Iraq expressed sympathy for the hostages.

"France's position toward Iraq is good. But we also are against kidnapping all journalists," said Sheikh Abdel Sattar Abdel Jabbar, a top official in the Muslim Clerics Association. "We call on the kidnappers to release them immediately."


Outside Iraq, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world's largest Islamist organization, and the Federation of Arab Journalists spoke out against the kidnapping.

Cairo's prestigious Sunni seat of learning, al-Azhar, and Lebanon's top Shi'ite cleric Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah also condemned the action.

French critics and defenders of the ban on headscarves united in condemning the kidnappers. Leaders of France's five-million strong Muslim community have denied any link with the militant Islamic Army in Iraq.

Fouad Alaoui, secretary-general of an Islamic group that had previously urged schoolgirls to defy the ban, recommended on Monday they refrain from flouting the law.

France passed the law in March in reaction to the growing influence of Islamist activists and tensions between Muslim and Jewish youths in schools. The law also bans Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

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