Hopes for an early release of two French journalists held by Islamist militants in Iraq rose dramatically last night when the editor of Le Figaro newspaper said he had been told the pair had been handed over to another group that favoured freeing them. Jean de Belot said the news was "certainly positive" but warned against excessive optimism. "The latest information is that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot have been handed over by the Islamic Army in Iraq to an Iraqi Sunni guerrilla group," he said. "This is an opposition group that we have known for a few days now has been in favour of the release of the hostages," He said some reports indicated the men might be freed this morning if the group now holding them received unspecified guarantees. "Until the good news has actually arrived, we cannot allow ourselves to be absolutely reassured," he said. The French foreign ministry could not immediately confirm the news but the foreign minister, Michel Barnier, said in Amman, Jordan, that the two men were "alive, in good health and well treated",informs Guardian Unlimited. According to ABCNEWS, despite divisive debate over a new law banning religious signs in the classroom, compliance was widespread as France's public schools opened the fall term, Education Minister Francois Fillon said Thursday. It was easier for 16-year-old Nadia Arabi to remove her Islamic head scarf than to defy the new law, or to risk contempt for breaking a national chain of solidarity for two Frenchmen held hostage by militants in Iraq. But that was seen less as a sign of surrender by conservative Muslims than part of the national effort with the Islamic community at the forefront to save two French journalists held by Islamic radicals demanding that the law be scrapped. The French government firmly refused the demand. "It is clear that the international context has played a non-negligible role" in the peaceful return to school, Armand Martin, head of Raymond Queneau High School in Villeneuve d'Ascq, told LCI television. His school, outside the northern city of Lille, held the unofficial record for girls wearing Muslim head scarves last year 58, according the newspaper Le Monde. Fillon said only 240 schoolgirls in all of France showed up in head scarves Thursday, compared to 1,200 counted last year. Only 70 refused to remove their scarves when they walked through the school door, he said. Optimism was growing Thursday that efforts to obtain the release of two French journalists held hostage in Iraq may bear fruit, with reports that the kidnappers holding the two had handed them on to a second group which was willing to release them. The French government, which strongly opposed last year's U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein, has been stressing France's "solidarity" with the Arab world, in the hope this may hold weight with the hostage-takers. The terrorists holding Christian Chesnot of Radio France International and Georges Malbrunot of the newspaper Le Figaro threatened to kill them if Paris did not withdraw its ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools, reports CNSNews.
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