Chirac postpones his visit to Russia over hostage crisis

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A threat by a militant Islamic group in Iraq to kill two French men unless a law banning Muslim headscarves in schools is abandoned was being treated as a national crisis by the French government last night.

A threat by a militant Islamic group in Iraq to kill two French men unless a law banning Muslim headscarves in schools is abandoned was being treated as a national crisis by the French government last night.

President Jacques Chirac put off his departure for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and met with Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin in the Elysée Palace last night to discuss his Government's response to the kidnapping. Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has been sent to the Middle East to help gain the hostages' release.

All French political parties and the main Islamic groups rejected with horror a threat by a group calling themselves the Islamic Army in Iraq to murder the two journalists unless the law banning the hajib and other religious symbols in state schools is revoked.

Georges Malbrunot, 41, and Christian Chesnot, 37, vanished a week ago while travelling from Baghdad to the besieged city of Najaf. Al-Jazeera television broadcast two short videotapes on Saturday night in which the journalists said they had been captured by the same group which murdered an Italian correspondent last week.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, believed to be a radical Sunni Muslim group, possibly linked with al-Qa'ida, said it would murder the French journalists within 48 hours.

Although France has a history of negotiating with terror groups, the country's political leaders were united yesterday in condemning the political "blackmail". The interior minister, Dominique de Villepin, called a meeting of France's Muslim consultative committee yesterday morning. Afterwards, they called on "anyone with a share of responsibility for the fate" of the journalists to free them immediately.

Mohamed Bechari, president of the national Muslim federation of France, called on all French Muslims to distance themselves from "such actions which are contrary to the Islamic faith". Islamic leaders urged Muslims in other countries not to attempt to interfere in French-Islamic internal relations.

Mr Malbrunot and Mr Chesnot are Middle East experts who have collaborated on three books about Iraq and the region. Mr Malbrunot has covered the Iraqi crisis for Le Figaro and Ouest-France. Mr Chesnot freelances from Amman for Radio France Internationale and Radio France. Both were described by colleagues yesterday as experienced Middle East and war correspondents who did not take unnecessary risks. The group which captured them claimed responsibility last week for the murder of an Italian journalist, Enzo Baldoni, and has also killed two Pakistani hostages.

The law banning the wearing of religious symbols in state schools is intended to defend the principle that France is a secular state.

Meanwhile in Iraq, tribal leaders, Shia politicians, government officials and US military officers agreed yesterday to a one-day truce amid peace talks aimed at ending violence in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, a day after clashes killed 10 people there. Further clashes between US forces and insurgents in Mosul left two dead and 34 injured, according to the US military.

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