Freed French reporters due back to heroes' welcome
Two French journalists freed in Iraq after a four-month ordeal are expected back in Paris where they will be greeted by President Jacques Chirac and given a heroes' welcome.
A French air force 14-seater Falcon 900 was to leave early Wednesday from Villacoublay airbase in the Paris region to collect Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper.
The aircraft was to take off around 8:00 am (0700 GMT) and return to the same base "late in the afternoon," the sources said.
France exploded in jubilation as emotional relatives called the release of the pair "the most beautiful Christmas present ever."
Late Tuesday Malbrunot's brother Bernard said he had been assured by Chirac that the two journalists would be spending the night in a secure location in Baghdad.
The defence ministry said: "It is probable that the two former hostages will be back in France during Wednesday afternoon at the Villacoublay airbase."
After months of anguish and tortured diplomacy, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin informed the French senate "with deep joy" that the two reporters were now free.
The insurgency group that had been holding them, the Islamic Army in Iraq, said it released the pair because of France's stance against the US-led war in Iraq and their own support for Palestinian statehood, the Arabic television station Al-Jazeera reported.
Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was to leave overnight to pick them up.
"This is the most beautiful Christmas present ever," Malbrunot's mother Andree told AFP by telephone, choking with emotion.
"As long as it hadn't been confirmed (to us) we couldn't be sure. We have had so many dashed hopes, we could scarcely believe it," she added from the family home in Montaiguet-en-Forez, in rural central France.
Chirac, breaking off a vacation in Morocco to return to Paris to greet the journalists when they arrive, issued a statement thanking officials involved in efforts to free the men.
"At the end of this long wait, shared by all the French, I want to express all our joy to our two compatriots and to their families and their loved ones who showed extraordinary courage and responsibility," he said.
Chesnot, 37, and Malbrunot, 41 -- the longest-held Western hostages in Iraq -- were seized on a road south of Baghdad on August 20.
Christian Chesnot's brother Thierry echoed Malbrunot's mother: "This is a huge relief. It's a wonderful Christmas present."
He said Raffarin's office had indicated the pair were "in good health."
Raffarin said the pair would "in all probability" be back in Paris late on Wednesday, while stressing that "we are naturally very cautious about all the conditions regarding their return."
"Our joy will be complete when they are safely on national soil," he added.
The French government had repeatedly said it was trying to negotiate their release with "discretion" after an unofficial bid by a French MP in September came up empty-handed.
The journalists' Syrian driver Mohammad al-Jundi, captured at the same time as them, was found in Fallujah on November 12 after US-led forces launched an offensive to clear the city of rebels.
A statement by the Islamic Army in Iraq quoted by Al-Jazeera, said the two were freed "because they were proven not to spy for US forces, in response to appeals and demands from Islamic institutions and bodies, and in appreciation of the French government's stand on the Iraq issue and the two journalists' stand on the Palestinian cause."
Celebrities such as Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche recorded radio messages keeping count of the number of days the two were held hostage, while the media rights group Reporters Without Borders oranised demonstrations and advertisements to keep their ordeal in the public eye.
Hostage-taking has become common in Iraq, where chaos and bloodshed have taken hold despite efforts by a US-led military coalition to impose security.
Foreigners are particularly targeted, and several, including an aid worker with British and Iraqi nationality, Margaret Hassan, have been murdered by their captors.
Several insurgency groups are thought to be involved in abductions, ranging from religious extremists who have often killed their foreign hostages, to well-funded guerrillas.
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.