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French hostage in Iraq pleads for help
Updated: 2005-03-01 21:06

BAGHDAD - Kidnapped French journalist Florence Aubenas, taken hostage with her driver in Baghdad more than seven weeks ago, made a desperate appeal for help in a video tape released by Iraqi insurgents Tuesday.

A frame grab taken from a video tape released by insurgents March 1, 2005, shows kidnapped French journalist Florence Aubenas at an undisclosed location. [Reuters]
"My name is Florence Aubenas. I'm French. I'm a journalist with Liberation," she said on the undated tape, speaking in broken English and apparently distraught and exhausted.

"My health is very bad. I'm very bad psychologically also," she said, staring at the camera intently. Dressed in a gray sweatshirt and black trousers, she sat with her knees drawn up to her chest in front of a dark red background.

The tape underlined Iraq's desperate security situation a day after a suicide bomber killed 125 people south of Baghdad in the single deadliest attack since Saddam Hussein's fall.

The tape is the first of Aubenas to be released since she and her Iraqi driver Hussein Hanun al-Saadi were seized in Baghdad on Jan. 5, and the first indication that she at least is alive. The driver does not appear in the tape.

Looking frail, Aubenas sounded desperate and appealed for help to a French parliamentarian.

"I ask particularly for the help of the French deputy Didier Julia. Help me Mr. Julia, help me. It's urgent," she said.

Julia, a member of the lower house of parliament from President Jacques Chirac's conservative UMP party, came to Iraq last September on a freelance effort to try to secure the release of two other kidnapped French journalists.

The effort failed and the government denied it had approved his intervention. When the journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were finally released in December after four months in captivity, they criticized Julia's mission.

The foreign editor of Liberation, Francois Sergent, said: "It is both what we feared and what we hoped for," explaining that he had not seen the video.

"It is a sign that they are alive, of course, but we also feared this because the hostages are being held in conditions that make the pictures terrible to see."


Aubenas is one of two female journalists being held. Italian Giuliana Sgrena, a reporter for Rome daily Il Manifesto, was abducted early last month as she conducted interviews in Baghdad. A tape of her pleading for her life was released nearly two weeks ago, but no word has been heard since.

Aubenas, who appeared from the tape to have lost weight while in captivity, was believed to have been snatched from her car shortly after leaving her central Baghdad hotel.

Her plight underscored the security crisis facing Iraq, where a new post-election government that has yet to be formed faces suicide bombings, shootings and kidnappings in an insurgency that shows no signs of easing after nearly two years.

Monday, a suicide bomber detonated his vehicle near a crowd of people seeking jobs in the southern town of Hilla, killing 125 people and wounded 130.

Police have opened an investigation into the attack in the largely Shi'ite Muslim town, but said no arrests had been made.

Residents of the impoverished town began burying the dead. Wooden coffins were put on top of cars.

"Is this jihad (holy war)?" asked one angry man, referring to Arab Muslim militants fighting in Iraq. "This is not holy war. This is the work of infidels."

A man stood weeping at the morgue. An infant who was killed in the blast lay on the floor. "He was hit in the back of the neck by shrapnel," said a man.

Iraqi and U.S. officials had hoped the Jan. 30 elections, which witnessed a big turnout in most of Iraq, would help lead to an easing of the violence that has become routine.

But insurgents have kept up attacks while politicians horse trade over who will fill the top government jobs. Officials say Sunni insurgents are trying to ignite a civil war with attacks like the one in Hilla.


Aubenas is at least the third French journalist to be kidnapped in Iraq, where more than 130 foreigners have been seized over the past 18 months. Hundreds of Iraqis have also been kidnapped for ransom over the same period.

In Paris, parliamentarian Julia told Reuters he was checking with the head of a parliamentary commission to see whether he could respond to Aubenas' plea for help. Since an investigation is under way into his intervention over Malbrunot and Chesnot it was not clear whether he would be allowed to do so.

"The government has known for a month where she is. If the ministers are incapable of doing anything, what do you want me to do?" he said by telephone. He gave no explanation of what he meant by saying the government knew where Aubenas was.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said in London: "We need to check this cassette very carefully. We will take all the measures that we consider useful. We will spare no effort."

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