Two French reporters are still hostages

The French government met for crisis talks today over the fate of two hostages in Iraq, but said their release was still possible and that discretion and patience are needed. Foreign minister Michel Barnier reported to President Jacques Chirac on his week-long visit to the Middle East, which garnered widespread condemnation from religious and political leaders there of the kidnapping of reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. “We have serious reasons to believe that they are both in good health and that a favourable outcome is possible,” Barnier said after a 90-minute meeting with Chirac. The government has given few details of its efforts to win their release, other than saying that no stone is being left unturned and that French diplomats, intelligence agents and friends in the region and beyond are involved. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin was to meet with Barnier and other ministers involved in the hostage drama for more talks this afternoon, informs the Scotsman. According to the Australian, in Paris, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said last night that France believed two French hostages being held in Iraq were in good health and that a "favourable outcome" to the crisis was possible. Mr Barnier, who was speaking after meeting President Jacques Chirac in the wake of Mr Barnier's tour of the Middle East aimed at gathering support for the hostages in the Muslim world, said he was ready to return to the region if necessary. "Our absolute priority remains today to secure the freedom of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot. Our priority remains their safety," he said. Rumours had been circulating that the journalists would be freed within days, but Mr Barnier's return to Paris yesterday suggested their release was on hold. On August 28 the Islamic Army in Iraq, which had kidnapped the journalists a week earlier, threatened to kill them unless France rescinded a law banning the Islamic headscarf and other conspicuous religious signs from state schools. The law came into effect without disruption on Thursday. On Friday it was reported that the men had been handed over to intermediaries. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Government on the weekend extended a ban on Al-Jazeera television and sealed the Baghdad office of the Arab news channel, charging it had not complied with a temporary ban clamped on grounds of incitement to violence. Unexpected difficulties appeared Sunday to stall the hoped-for release of two French journalists in Iraq as the government in Paris hinted at new doubts over their fate. In Iraq, a senior Muslim cleric told AFP that a US-led raid had "disrupted the process of their release," but that he had issued a fatwa, or a religious ruling, calling for their immediate freedom. In Paris, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and a restricted circle of senior cabinet colleagues were briefed by foreign minister Michel Barnier, who unexpectedly returned to France late on Saturday after five days in the Middle East, reports News 24.

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