French foreign minister urgent mission

French President Jacques Chirac dispatched his foreign minister on an urgent mission to the Middle East to secure the release of two journalists kidnapped by Islamic militants in Iraq.

In a televised address after a day of government crisis talks, Chirac called for the release of the two reporters being held by the Islamic Army in Iraq, which has demanded that Paris rescind its ban on headscarves in state schools by late Monday.

"Everything has been done and everything will be done in the hours and days to come to make sure that happens," Chirac said, adding he had "no additional information" about the fate of the two newsmen.

Chirac said that Foreign Minister Michel Barnier would "leave immediately for the region to develop the necessary contacts there and coordinate the efforts of our representatives on the scene."

The foreign ministry said Barnier would first travel to Egypt in his bid to negotiate the release of Radio France correspondent Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper, who went missing nine days ago, reports Channel News Asia.

According to the Bloomberg, "All of our energy is mobilized to try to obtain the liberty of our citizens held hostage in Iraq," French Prime Minister Jean- Pierre Raffarin said earlier on Sunday on the LCI television station before heading to a meeting with Chirac.

The two reporters were seized by the Islamic Army in Iraq, which killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni last week, Agence France-Presse said. The group said the French headscarf law is "an attack on the Islamic religion and individual freedoms," AFP said, citing Qatar-based al-Jazeera television.

Raffarin earlier in the day called together cabinet members including Barnier and Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin to discuss the kidnapping.

The government learned that the journalists were being held hostage after a video of the two sent by their captors was aired on Al-Jazeera, a spokesman for the foreign ministry said.

The two went missing on Aug. 20 after leaving Baghdad for the city of Najaf, where U.S. forces were fighting militiamen holed up in the Imam Ali mosque, AFP said.

Sheik Abdulsattar Abduljawad, from the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni Muslim group believed to have links to insurgents, also called for their release -- and for concessions by the French government.

The French law, which takes effect Wednesday, forbids public school students from wearing religious apparel and "conspicuous" signs showing their religious affiliation. That includes Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, informs Moscow Times.

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