Seeking a solution to the crisis with French journalists in Iraq

Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin urged caution as he welcomed back French Muslim leaders who had gone to Baghdad to press for the men's release. Foreign Minister Michel Barnier is also returning from the Middle East after seeking a solution to the crisis. Meanwhile Iraqi militants appeared to threaten to behead a Turkish hostage. Al-Arabiya TV station broadcast a video in which a group calling itself the Islamic Resistance Movement - al-Noaman Brigades called for the lorry driver's employer and other Turkish companies to withdraw from Iraq within two days. "We demand that the two companies stop these acts, which make it necessary for those carrying them out to be killed," said a statement read out on the channel, informs BBC NEWS. According to Reuters, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has flown back to Paris from Jordan to brief President Jacques Chirac on efforts to save two French hostages in Iraq amid hopes they will soon be freed. Barnier said on Saturday he believed journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot were in good health and being treated well by the militants who seized them on August 20. Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said France hoped they would be freed soon. A Muslim delegation which went to Iraq to try to help the hostages said the main obstacle to their release seemed to be difficulties in arranging a safe handover. "I am returning to Paris now to inform the President of the Republic and the Prime Minister about the first part of my mission," Barnier said in a written declaration, making clear his Middle East shuttle diplomacy may not be over yet. "According to the information we have at the moment, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot are in good health and are being treated correctly." Barnier, who will meet Chirac on Sunday morning and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin in the afternoon following his talks in Jordan, Qatar and Egypt, gave no indication when the men might be freed. An Islamic militant group that claimed to have kidnapped two French journalists said it would soon decide their fate, according to a message posted on a Web site Friday, and an Iraqi negotiator called the chance for their release "excellent." The group, the Islamic Army in Iraq, said in a statement that its "legal committee . . . will soon announce its decision" about the two hostages, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, who were abducted Aug. 19. The kidnappers have demanded the French government rescind a law banning students from wearing Muslim head scarves and other overt religious garb in public schools. The law went into effect Thursday. An aide to rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr denounced the kidnappings during a Friday sermon in the city of Kufa. "Killing the journalists will not force France to cancel the law against wearing hijab, but it will benefit the enemies of Islam and show Muslims as enemies of freedom," said the aide, Jaber Khafaji, publishes the Washington Post.

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