Two French reporters abducted in Iraq

President Jacques Chirac dispatched his foreign minister to the Middle East on Sunday to work for the release of two French reporters abducted in Iraq, vowing to spare no effort to free them from kidnappers demanding the France scrap its ban on Islamic head scarves in state schools. Chirac appealed to the kidnappers with an implicit reminder that France opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But he did not directly respond to their reported demand that the ban on head scarves and other religious apparel be overturned within 48 hours. France ensures equality, the respect and protection of the free practicing of all religions," a solemn-looking Chirac said in a televised address. "These values of respect and tolerance inspire our actions everywhere in the world ... They also inspired France's policy in Iraq." The kidnapping proved false the notion that France's opposition to the Iraq war and its generally pro-Arab policies may to some extent have inoculated it from Islamic terrorism. The militants claiming to hold Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot described the headscarf law as "an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms," according to the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera. The station showed a brief tape on Saturday of the journalists saying they were in captivity the first word on their fate since they disappeared more than a week ago. Chesnot works for Radio France-Internationale and Radio France and Malbrunot for RTL radio and the dailies Le Figaro and Ouest-France. Chirac said Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was rushing to the Middle East "to develop the necessary contacts there and coordinate our representatives' efforts" to win the reporters' release. "Everything is being done and everything will be done in the hours and days to come," said Chirac. He said France has no fresh information about the reporters, informs ABCNEWS. According to Reuters, 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. Islamic militants in Iraq have kidnapped two French journalists and demanded the rescinding of a ban on the Islamic headscarf in French schools, the first time they have demanded a policy change abroad that is not connected to their own country. The kidnappers from the Islamic Army in Iraq, the same group which killed Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni after taking him hostage, have given Paris 48 hours from Saturday to meet its demand, according to Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic-language television network. The French law goes into effect at the beginning of the new school year on Wednesday. Al-Jazeera identified the kidnapped Frenchmen as missing journalists Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot of Paris daily Le Figaro and said it had received video footage of the two newsmen. The pair went missing on Aug 20 after leaving Baghdad for the Iraqi Shi'ite holy city of Najaf, where US forces were fighting Shi'ite Muslim militiamen. Al-Jazeera did not say what would happen if Paris ignored the kidnappers' ultimatum, but Mr Baldoni was killed after Rome refused a demand to pull its troops out of Iraq. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin yesterday cancelled a trip to the south of the country to hold a crisis meeting with his three top ministers in a bid to secure the journalists' release, publishes the Straits Times.

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