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Two French Hostages Released After Four Months

Journalists' Abductors Unsuccessfully Called for France to Revoke Law on Head Scarves

By Jamey Keaten
Associated Press
Wednesday, December 22, 2004; Page A21

PARIS, Dec. 21 -- Two French reporters held hostage for four months in Iraq were released in Baghdad on Tuesday and should be home in time for Christmas, the government announced, bringing cheers across a nation that had anguished over their captivity.

"I have a profound joy in announcing to you that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot have just been freed by the Islamic Army," Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told the upper house of Parliament as lawmakers erupted in applause.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said the reporters were expected back in France on Wednesday. They were handed over to French officials in the Iraqi capital, he said. He gave no details on their release.

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

Chesnot, 38, works for Radio France International, and Malbrunot, 41, is a correspondent for the newspaper Le Figaro.

The two were abducted Aug. 20 along with their Syrian driver while driving to the holy city of Najaf. The driver, Mohammed Joundi, was freed in November.

The Islamic Army of Iraq asserted responsibility for the journalists' abduction and demanded that France revoke a law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious apparel from schools. The government refused.

After expressing initial hopes that the men would be quickly released, French officials grew increasingly tight-lipped about the hostages as the months dragged on. Officials repeatedly said they believed the reporters were alive, but would not discuss French efforts to free them.

The hostages' fate had gripped France. Some newspapers carried daily columns counting their days of captivity. Celebrities, including actresses Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche, delivered daily radio appeals to remind listeners of the men. Giant photos of the reporters hung from Paris's City Hall.

Raffarin, the prime minister, 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."

Chesnot's sister, Anne-Marie, trembled with excitement in an interview with 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."

The reporters were among more than 170 foreign hostages taken by groups in Iraq. More than 30 have been killed.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company