French hostages 'handed to intermediaries'

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The Independent Online

Complex and secretive moves were under way last night to complete the rescue of two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq two weeks ago.

Complex and secretive moves were under way last night to complete the rescue of two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq two weeks ago.

Amid signs that France's forceful, and successful, handling of the affair had infuriated the Iraqi government, it appeared that the hostages had already been handed over to French security agents and an "intermediary" group of Iraqi militants.

The employer of one of the journalists said that the group was 40 or 50 kilometres from Baghdad airport, waiting for a chance to dash to an aircraft without being intercepted by other extremists or Iraqi government police or soldiers.

Alain Ménargues, director of information at Radio France Internationale, said he hoped that the hostages would be free soon but the situation remained "very dangerous".

There were indications, however, that France's robust handling of the affair - generating a barrage of pleas to the hostage-takers from Arab governments and Islamic militants and sending its own agents to oversee negotiations in Baghdad - had annoyed the interim Iraqi administration. A planned visit to Paris tomorrow by the Iraqi President, Ghazi al-Yaouar, was abruptly cancelled by both sides yesterday.

It was also hinted yesterday for the first time that the kidnapping of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot on 20 August by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq was motivated by money. The French government has denied paying any kind of ransom.

The Islamic Army had publicly demanded the repeal of a French law banning the wearing of Muslim headscarves and all other religious symbols in state schools. In a statement broadcast by Radio France Internationale, M. Ménargues said that the kidnappings were "purely motivated by money".

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