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Amelia Gentleman, Luke Harding31 Aug 2004 07:10
Two French journalists being held hostage in Iraq on Monday night warned that they faced death if France refused to yield to their kidnappers’ demands to repeal legislation which will ban Islamic headscarves in schools.
New footage showing the radio correspondent Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro was broadcast on the Arabic satellite channel al-Jazeera, soon after the 48-hour deadline for their release expired. Their captors extended the deadline for the government to overturn the law by a further 24 hours.
The two men were filmed against the backdrop of a grey mud wall.
“I call on President [Jacques] Chirac to ... retract the veil ban immediately and I call on French people to protest the veil ban. It is a wrong and unjust law and we may die at any time,” Chesnot said, according to al-Jazeera’s translation into Arabic.
“I appeal to the French people to go to the streets ... because our lives are threatened,” Malbrunot said in English.
On Monday in Paris, ministers said the new law—which bans all conspicuous signs of faith in state schools, including Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses—will be enforced when the autumn term begins on Thursday.
The foreign minister, Michel Barnier, arrived in Cairo on Monday to see whether allies in the Arab world could influence the situation. A diplomatic envoy was in Baghdad to meet Iraqi leaders.
In an earlier appearance on al-Jazeera, Barnier called for the immediate release of the hostages, “in the name of the principles of humanity and respect of mankind”.
The reporters were in Iraq to “to explain to the world, to bear witness to the difficult conditions of the Iraqi people”, he said.
Later he reiterated France’s opposition to the war in Iraq and described the deadline for a repeal of the new legislation as “incomprehensible, given the reality of French society”.
After a meeting with Barnier, the Arab League chief Amr Moussa said: “I urge everyone who has power, or has the capabilities, to set the journalists free as soon as possible so that the situation does not become more complicated.”
Politicians joined protesters at a rally in Paris on Monday night in support of the journalists.
The French Muslim organisations which had opposed the new headscarf law expressed outrage at the kidnapping and condemned foreign interference in a domestic issue.
The Union of French Islamic Organisations, which had previously urged schoolgirls to flout the ban, said it was vital to avoid exacerbating hostility towards France’s five million strong Muslim population.
“This episode must not lead to a further radicalisation of the situation in France,” Fouad Alaoui, the group’s secretary general, said.
Arab leaders stressed that the kidnapping was damaging “the image of Arabs in the west”. Yasser Arafat, who was due to make a radio appeal on the journalists’ behalf last night, called for the “immediate release” of the men, saying France was a friend of the Palestinian cause.
Chesnot and Malbrunot went missing in Iraq on August 20 and are thought to be in the hands of the same group who killed the Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni last week, after Italy failed to respond to a demand for its troops be be withdrawn from Iraq.
The little-known group said France’s new law was “an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms”.
Iraqi Sunni and Shia groups hostile to the US-led presence in their country also called for the hostages’ release on Monday, stressing that journalists should not be treated as combatants.
“It is amoral and inhumane. The abduction of any journalist tarnishes the image of Iraq and Islam,” said Ali al-Yassiri, a spokesperson for the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Al-Sadr on Monday called on his followers to stop fighting against US and Iraqi forces, and gave his strongest hint yet that he is likely to participate in next year’s elections. In an interview, Sheikh Ali Smeisim, one of the cleric’s senior aides, said that al-Sadr had told his Mehdi army militia to observe a ceasefire across Iraq.
He urged the fighters “to cease fire unless in self-defence, and to be patient until the political programme which Sadr’s followers are planning is revealed”.
The move comes just days after al-Sadr agreed to end the violent three-week uprising in Najaf, at the urging of Iraq’s most important Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The two men have agreed to work together to facilitate a census in Iraq ahead of general elections in January.
There is now increasing speculation that al-Sadr intends to run for political office with a possible view to becoming prime minister. He is unlikely to win any election outright but his support base virtually guarantees him a seat in Iraq’s new cabinet.
Both clerics appear determined to ensure that after the elections Iraq has a Shia-dominated government for the first time in its history.
Iraq’s unelected interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, has repeatedly urged al-Sadr to disband his militia and join the political process. - Guardian Unlimited Â
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