France gets extra day to lift headscarf ban before executions

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The Independent Online

Iraqi militants who have kidnapped two French journalists last night gave Paris another 24 hours to rescind its ban on Muslim headscarves before they execute their captives.

Iraqi militants who have kidnapped two French journalists last night gave Paris another 24 hours to rescind its ban on Muslim headscarves before they execute their captives.

The extension to the deadline came as the reporters, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, called on the French President, Jacques Chirac, to give in to the demand, according to a video shown late last night on the Arabic al-Jazeera television station.

"I appeal to the French people to go to the streets... because our lives are threatened," M. Malbrunot said.

M. Chesnot, 37, of Radio France-Internationale, and M. Malbrunot, 41, of Le Figaro newspaper, disappeared on 19 August, apparently while on a journey to the holy city of Najaf.

The French government had earlier refused to abandon or even suspend a new law banning Muslim headscarves in state schools, as demanded by the kidnappers of two French journalists in Iraq.

Instead, France is using its contacts in the Islamic world ­ and its status as a leading opponent of the Iraqi war ­ to secure the release of the two journalists and their Syrian driver-interpreter.

The Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, began a trip to the Middle East trying to convey a message to the kidnappers by appearances on Arab media and official and unofficial contacts. The message is threefold: France strenuously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq; the law on headscarves is not an attack on Islam; and all Muslim leaders in France are united in calling for the kidnappers to abandon their "blackmail".

In a statement in Cairo yesterday, M. Barnier said France "defends in Iraq, in Palestine... and throughout the world, justice and dignity for all peoples. France, with others, is in the vanguard of defence of international law".

Government ministers and opposition leaders joined a demonstration at Trocadéro in Paris last night, calling on the "Islamic Army in Iraq" to release M. Chesnot and M. Malbrunot. But the official government spokesman, Jean-François Copé, said the law which bans the headscarves and other religious symbols in state schools would be applied, as planned, when the new school year begins on Thursday.

France criticised Iraq's interim Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi, for saying that states which did not actively fight terrorists would become their targets after the two Frenchmen were kidnapped.

In comments reported in Le Monde daily, Mr Allawi said: "The French, like all democratic countries, cannot let themselves be satisfied with adopting a passive position.

"Governments that decide to stay on the defensive will be the next terrorist targets.

"Let me tell you that the French, despite all the noise they are making, [such as] 'We don't want war', will soon have to fight against terrorists," he said, adding that future attacks could happen in French cities as well as in the United States.

The French government, which led the opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, called his comments unacceptable.

"These declarations seem, in effect, to cast doubt on France's determination in the fight against terrorism," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, adding that France had called for a political solution in Iraq since the start of the crisis.

"The French authorities have, for a long time, affirmed the necessity and urgency to mobilise against all forms of terrorism. France, which has itself been a victim of terrorist attacks, leads unrelentingly a determined action against this plague," the ministry said.

An Iraqi human rights activist, Mouzhar al-Douleimi, told Le Monde he had contacted the kidnappers and obtained an agreement "in principle" that the journalists would not be harmed. He said the Islamic Army, which has murdered an Italian journalist and two Pakistani contractors, had agreed to spare the journalists and their chauffeur "because of the honourable position of the French government and people towards Iraq".