2 kidnapped French journalists freed

Pair due home today, 4 months after abduction by tribal bandits in Iraq

December 22, 2004|By Tom Hundley | Tom Hundley,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

LONDON - Two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq in August were released yesterday and turned over to French authorities in Baghdad.

"I have profound joy in announcing to you that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot have been freed by the Islamic Army," said Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who interrupted a debate in the French Senate to announce the news. Senators erupted with applause and a standing ovation.

The two, who were in Amman, Jordan, last night, are expected to arrive in France today.

Chesnot's brother, Thierry, said the reporters are in good health. "It's the best Christmas present we could get," he told the Associated Press.

Chesnot's sister, Anne-Marie, excitedly told LCI television: "After four months of waiting, with the highs and the lows, it's such a relief. We're even having trouble believing it. It came out of nowhere."

According to a statement quoted by Al-Jazeera television, the kidnappers said the Frenchmen were freed "because they were proven not to spy for U.S. 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."

Although the kidnappers demanded a ransom, French government statements made no mention of money being paid.

France is widely believed to have paid for the release of hostages in the past, notably in Lebanon, and Middle East experts in Paris said that money discussions were part of the protracted negotiations for the two journalists, but it was unclear if money was paid.

Antoine Basbous, director of a Middle East research institute in Paris, said it was rare to see hostages freed without some compensation. He also noted that Saddam Hussein's recent expression of "satisfaction" with France's diplomatic approach in Iraq might have contributed to the journalists' release.

Raffarin said the release was the "result of constant, difficult and discreet work." He praised "the courage of these two men who suffered these long months in difficult conditions."

The captivity of Chesnot, 37, a reporter for French Radio Internationale, and Malbrunot, 41, from the newspaperLe Figaro, became a source of pain for the government of President Jacques Chirac.

Their pictures were in French newspapers every day, and French radio and television provided updates several times a day. Large photos of the men hung from Paris' City Hall.

Many in France assumed that the nation's vocal opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq bought it a measure of protection from the insurgents. "The first reaction to the kidnappings was: `They can't do that to us. They can't treat us like the Brits and the Italians,'" said Dominique Moisi, a political analyst. "We thought we would get some immunity, but that turned out to be a false bet."

According to reports in the French media, Chesnot and Malbrunot were kidnapped Aug. 20 by tribal bandits who wanted to exchange them for two satellite phones, $1,000 in cash and several goats.

Nine days later, the Islamic Army in Iraq announced it had the pair and demanded that France rescind a controversial ban on the wearing of Islamic head scarves in public schools.

The French government mobilized quickly. Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was dispatched to the region and began calling in diplomatic IOUs. Everyone from Libya's Muammar el Kadafi to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood condemned the taking of French hostages and demanded their immediate release.

Leaders of France's large Muslim community also denounced the hostage taking and rejected the Islamic Army's demand that France withdraw the head-scarf ban - even though most Muslim organizations in France oppose the ban. But hopes of a swift resolution to the crisis fizzled amid reports the hostages were handed over to another group.

More than 170 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq. At least 30 have been murdered.

An upside to the saga is that the French Muslim community set aside its disagreement with the French government over the head-scarf ban and rallied around the hostages.

"It has brought to the attention of the non-Muslim French that most French Muslims feel more French than Muslim," said Guillaume Parmentier, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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