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Chirac Sends FM to Mideast to Win Iraq Hostage Release

French President Jacques Chirac sent his foreign minister to the Middle East on Sunday to try to win freedom for two journalists held in Iraq by militants demanding France end its ban on Muslim headscarves in schools.

"Today, the whole nation is united because the lives of two Frenchmen are at stake," Chirac said in a televised address on Sunday evening.


"Backed up by this national unity, I solemnly call for the release of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. Everything is being done and everything will be done in the coming hours and days to achieve this."


Shortly after Chirac laid out France's position, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier flew to Cairo on a Middle East tour meant to tap regional contacts and win the journalists' release.


The Islamic Army in Iraq, which last week said it killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, on Saturday gave Paris 48 hours to rescind the headscarf ban, without saying what would happen if it does not.


Chesnot worked for Radio France International (RFI) and Malbrunot for daily newspapers Le Figaro and Ouest France. They disappeared en route from Baghdad to Najaf on Aug. 20, the day after Baldoni was taken hostage.


Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin defended France's separation of church and state, the principle behind the headscarf ban due to apply when schools reopen on Thursday, and Muslim leaders denounced the kidnapping as foreign interference.


Flanked by about a dozen Muslim leaders after their consultations earlier on Sunday, Villepin strongly defended France's secular system and said the separation of church and state united citizens rather than divided them.


"French people of all origins and all religions are united in support of our compatriots Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot," he said. "Together, we ask for their release."


Consultations all day 


Diplomatic sources said Barnier might go to Qatar after Egypt but his itinerary had not yet been set.


Because of the hostage crisis, Chirac postponed his planned departure on Monday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Crimea, his office said.


He now intends to leave late on Monday and will meet with Schroeder and Putin on Tuesday in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The three leaders opposed the war in Iraq.


Prime Minster Jean-Pierre Raffarin spent the day in crisis meetings, consulting Chirac, cabinet members and leading deputies. He also contacted left-wing opposition leaders to request their support, which they promptly gave.


French Muslim leaders reacted nervously to the kidnapping and denied there was any link between it and their criticism of a headscarf ban they initially opposed but pledged to respect after it was passed into law last March.


"The French Muslim community is absolutely innocent," said Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith. "I beg that there not be any confusion between the French Muslim community and this odious blackmail."


Lhaj Thami Breze, head of the Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF) which has urged schoolgirls to defy the ban, said the headscarf issue was strictly a French affair. "We cannot accept any outside interference," he said.


A moderate group called the Council of Muslim Democrats called on Arab intellectuals in Paris to demonstrate on Monday in favor of the journalists' release.


Controversial ban


France passed the law banning conspicuous signs of faith in state schools in reaction to the growing influence of Islamist activists among its 5 million Muslims and mounting tensions between Muslim and Jewish youths in schools.


The law was widely slammed abroad as a flagrant violation of religious freedom, both in the United States and Britain as well as across the Muslim world. France rejected the criticism.


Ayman al-Zawahri, right-hand man to al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden, said the ban showed "Crusader hatred" against Muslims in February. In March, a shadowy Islamist group threatened "to plunge France into terror and remorse and spill blood outside its frontiers" because of the ban.


(China Daily via agencies August 30, 2004)


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Chirac Wants Law Banning Muslim Headscarf in School
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