Militants claim kidnapping of French journalists; demand France overturn head scarf ban

Saturday, August 28th 2004, 4:51 pm
By: News On 6

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Islamic militants released a brief tape showing two French journalists kidnapped recently in Iraq and said they were holding the men to protest a French law banning headscarves in schools, according to footage aired Saturday by an Arab TV station.

The station, Al-Jazeera, said the group gave the French government 48 hours to overturn the law but mentioned no ultimatum.

Christian Chesnot of Radio France-Internationale, or RFI, and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper and RTL radio have not been in touch with their employers since Aug. 19, the French Foreign Ministry said last week.

The station's news reader said the group described the French law banning religious apparel in public schools as ``an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms.''

The tape, lasting 3-4 seconds, showed the men separately, each standing in front of a black background emblazoned in red with the group's name, the Islamic Army in Iraq, in Arabic. The tape did not give the hostages' names, but their employers in France later identified them.

Chesnot appeared first, saying in poor Arabic that ``we are being held by the Islamic Army in Iraq.''

The tape then showed Malbrunot. ``First of all, I want to tell my family that all is well and we are being treated well,'' he says in French just before the tape cuts off.

Sheik Abdulsattar Abduljawad, from the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni Muslim group believed to have links to insurgents, called for the release of the journalists.

``We call the Islamic Army in Iraq to free the French hostages and ask the French government to cancel their decision forbidding the wearing of the Hijab (the head scarf),'' he told Al-Jazeera early Sunday.

The French law, which takes effect Wednesday, forbids public school students from wearing religious apparel and ``conspicuous'' signs showing their religious affiliation. That includes Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

French authorities have made clear, however, that the ban is aimed at removing Islamic head scarves from classrooms. The law sparked protests at home and abroad, with many Muslims saying they felt unfairly targeted.

The last time the reporters checked in, they were in Baghdad, RFI said. LCI television said they were last sighted about 20 miles outside Baghdad, on the road heading to Najaf.

Because of the video, ``we know that they have been taken hostage,'' said Jacques Esnous, RTL editorial director.

``We saw that they are in good health, but we also saw that they have an appalling sword of Damocles hanging above them,'' he told The Associated Press. ``The terrible decision rests with the government.''

But he added: ``It's a choice between democracy and fanaticism, and until now democratic governments have never conceded to fanatics ... That is why we are terribly worried.''

A spokesman for President Jacques Chirac's Elysee office said that he had heard about the Al-Jazeera report, but that the hostage-takers had not contacted French officials.

Asked if France was willing to reconsider the headscarf law, the spokesman said: ``I don't think we are at that point for the moment.''

``We must see what the claim is and how credible it is,'' he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. ``We are waiting to learn more.''

On Tuesday, Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape purportedly released by the same group showing abducted freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni, 56. Two days later, the station received another video that showed Baldoni's killing.

A senior Al-Jazeera editor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the latest video was similar in form to the Baldoni tape aired Tuesday. Both tapes showed the hostages standing in front of a black background with red Arabic script in the background.

Philippe Necand, deputy chief editor at RTL radio, noted that the name of the group cited by Al-Jazeera is similar to the group that supposedly killed the Italian reporter.

``We are worried when we see what happened to the Italian,'' Necand told AP. ``We can always hope.''

Scores of foreigners have been kidnapped in recent months by insurgents and criminal gangs seeking to extort ransom or with the political motive of trying to force foreign troops and companies to leave the country.

In April, 40-year-old French TV journalist Alex Jordanov was freed after four days in captivity in Iraq during which he was repeatedly interrogated by captors accusing him of being an Israeli spy.

France, which opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last year, has said there are fewer than 100 French citizens in Iraq, mostly journalists, aid workers and the employees of private companies; nearly all are in Baghdad.