Official: France has no direct contact with reporters' kidnappers in Iraq

Saturday, November 13th 2004, 10:31 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) _ France believes that two journalists held hostage in Iraq are still alive, but authorities have lost direct contact with their kidnappers, the foreign minister said Saturday.

Reporters Christian Chesnot, 37, of Radio France Internationale, and Georges Malbrunot, 41, of the daily newspaper Le Figaro, disappeared Aug. 20 while driving to the Iraqi city of Najaf. Their Syrian driver, Mohammed al-Joundi, who also was abducted, was rescued Thursday by U.S. Marines in Fallujah.

Marines said al-Joundi told them he was separated from the journalists a month ago and had not seen them since.

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said Paris did not know whether all three were together or separated until hearing the driver's account.

``We do not have direct contact with the group that kidnapped Christian Chesnot (and) Georges Malbrunot,'' Michel Barnier told Europe-1 radio. ``The situation in Iraq is extremely complex, difficult, dangerous.''

The French government has been extremely tightlipped about its efforts to free the hostages, saying secrecy is essential for the men's safety and the success of any negotiations.

``I am unable to say publicly all the information we have,'' Barnier said. ``We think they are alive and well-treated.''

Al-Joundi's brother-in-law, Ali Merhebi, said Friday that France's Foreign Ministry told him last month that French officials had found a channel of direct contact with the group believed to have taken the men hostage.

``They said, 'We have found the means to contact the group directly, and we hope to have good news in the days to come,''' Merhebi told The Associated Press.

The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman refused to confirm Merhebi's account.

``This concerns negotiations, I cannot confirm anything,'' she said.

Barnier did not specify Saturday when authorities had last communicated with the kidnapers, saying only: ``We have had direct contact and we are trying to resume these contacts.''