The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Anxious France steps up diplomatic efforts

Amman, Aug. 31 (Reuters): An anxious French government accelerated its diplomatic bid to save two French reporters held hostage in Iraq today as a fresh kidnapper deadline neared for Paris to scrap a ban on Muslim headscarves in schools.

With the deadline approaching, the gravity of the reporters’ plight was clearly highlighted when a separate group of Iraqi militants said they killed 12 Nepali hostages.

President Jacques Chirac, refusing to back down over the headscarf ban, led an unprecedented diplomatic push to appeal to the militants holding Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, shown on Arab television yesterday fearing for their lives.

“I am renewing my solemn call for their release,” said Chirac, in Russia, to meet anti-Iraq war allies Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. “Everything will be done to secure their release.”

Foreign minister Michel Barnier, racing through West Asia capitals, secured pledges of help in Jordan after visiting Cairo yesterday as France called in its many debts in the Arab world.

Barnier, who said France was working tirelessly and sometimes in secret to free the hostages, planned to return to Egypt and the city of Alexandria later.

French media reported that France had sent its top expert in behind-the-scenes diplomacy, former secret service chief and Arab affairs specialist General Philippe Rondot, to Iraq. The defence ministry refused to confirm or deny this. The kidnappings stunned France, which opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq and also objected to pre-war sanctions.

Islamic militants Hamas joined a chorus of groups including French Muslims opposed to the headscarf ban, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and aides to anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in urging freedom for the journalists.

The kidnappers last night gave France a further 24 hours to repeal its controversial law, which is part of a broader measure aimed at anti-Semitism that bars Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, a shadowy militant group, did not specify the fate facing the two men if there was no repeal but the group claimed responsibility for the death of an Italian journalist last week.

On television, Chesnot and Malbrunot, looking calm and in a room flooded with daylight, pleaded for a repeal of the ban.

“I call on President Chirac to... retract the veil ban immediately and I call on French people to protest the veil ban,” Chesnot, 37, of Radio France Internationale, said.

“It is a wrong and unjust law and we may die at any time.”

Malbrunot, 41, who writes for Le Figaro and Ouest France, said: “Our life is in danger and we might die at any moment if the law doesn’t get banned.”

Earlier in August, the militant group said it kidnapped Iran’s envoy to Karbala, Fereidoun Jahani, and demanded Iran return remaining prisoners from the Iran-Iraq War. Tehran said it had none and the deadline passed without incident. Jahani is still being held. While French leaders have vowed not to give in, observers saw a glimmer of hope in the deadline extension and the mobilisation of Muslim and Arab opposition to the kidnappings.

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