Two French journalists have been taken hostage in Iraq by Islamic militants demanding the lifting of a ban on the Islamic headscarf in French schools.
According to the Arabic satellite news channel, Al-Jazeera, the kidnappers are members of the Islamic Army in Iraq, the same group that claimed responsibility for killing Italian journalist, Enzo Baldoni.
Al-Jazeera has identified the hostages as Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot of the Paris daily newspaper, Le Figaro.
The group has given France 48 hours to rescind the ban on Islamic headscarves in schools. The ban is due to come into effect in September.
The journalists had been missing for nine days. Their employers had expressed hopes they would be safe as France had been an outspoken opponent of the war on Iraq.
French President Jacques Chirac earlier this year signed the law, forbidding religious apparel and conspicuous signs of a student’s religious affiliation.
The Islamic Army of Iraq described the ban as an “aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms”.
SBS, Aug. 30
France has vowed it will not repeal a law banning Islamic headscarves in schools, despite the demands of Iraqi kidnappers holding two French journalists captive.
Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope said the law will come into effect as planned at the start of the academic year on Thursday.
“The law will be applied,” Mr Cope said.
“These are values of tolerance, respect and above all the principle that in France anyone can exercise his or her religion, while respecting those of others,” he said.
The law bans religious symbols in schools, including Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses, in a bid to strengthen France’s separation of religion and state.
The Islamic Army in Iraq said late on Saturday it was giving France 48 hours to rescind the headscarf ban.
Although it did not explicitly threaten to kill the men, it murdered an Italian journalist last week after Rome ignored an ultimatum to pull its troops out of Iraq.
France has sent Foreign Minister Michel Barnier to the Egyptian capital Cairo to press for the hostages’ release.
Mr Barnier said a top ministry official will visit Baghdad soon to further pus for the freeing of Radio France’s Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper.
The pair disappeared in Iraq on August 20, the day they were to have left Baghdad for the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, the scene of fierce fighting between US forces and Shi’ite militia loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
On Saturday Arabic-language Al-Jazeera television broadcast images of the two men—both Middle East experts with years of experience in the region—along with the ultimatum from the Islamic Army in Iraq.
After a series of crisis meetings, French President Jacques Chirac on Sunday dispatched Mr Barnier to the region.
He is to meet with General Omar Suleiman, head of Egypt’s secret service, who has been following events in Iraq closely, and Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa.
The head of Radio France, Jean-Paul Cluzel, said Mr Barnier will also use the trip to explain the rationale behind the law banning religious insignia to the Arab media.
“He will explain that the values of human equality . . . apply to all our fellow citizens,” said Mr Cluzel.