French journalists released after 124 days in captivity

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Four months of quiet negotiations by France and several Arab countries paid off yesterday with the release of two French journalists kidnapped by an Iraqi extremist group in August.

Four months of quiet negotiations by France and several Arab countries paid off yesterday with the release of two French journalists kidnapped by an Iraqi extremist group in August.

Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were handed over to French officials yesterday by the "Islamic Army in Iraq", a rag-tag group of Saddam loyalists and Sunni Muslim fundamentalists. After 124 days in captivity, the journalists were said to be already in Amman, Jordan's capital, last night, ready to fly to France today in time for Christmas.

The Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin told the Sénat, or upper house of parliament: "I have the profound joy of announcing that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot have been freed."

The breakthrough, after four months of apparently fruitless negotiations and attempts by France to call in favours throughout the Arab world, took commentators in Paris by surprise. Only yesterday morning, Journalistes sans Frontières, the journalists' support group, complained that efforts to free the pair were "getting nowhere" and French diplomacy had failed. Questions are certain to be raised about possible ransom payments, although, officially, the Islamic Army in Iraq asked for no money and the French government offered none.

In a statement to Al-Jazeera television - which broke the news - the militant group said the two Frenchmen had been freed "because we received proof that they were not spying for the American forces". The statement also said they had been liberated "because of demands from Muslim institutions and organisations, in appreciation of the French government's attitude to the Iraqi question and because of the support of the two journalists for the Palestinian cause".

M. Malbrunot, 41, and M. Chesnot, 37, vanished with their Syrian driver and fixer on 20 August while travelling from Baghdad to the besieged city of Najaf. Their driver, Mohamed al-Joundi, was separated from them a few weeks later and freed during the US-led attack on the city of Fallujah last month.Two weeks after the journalists' kidnapping, the group said they would be killed unless France revoked a law banning Muslim headscarves and religious symbols from state schools.

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