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Iraqi Group Frees Two French Hostages

A shadowy Iraqi group has released two French news reporters, who have spent almost four months in captivity.

France reacted with joy Tuesday at the news that reporters Christian Chesnot and George Malbrunot had finally been released.

In Paris, French Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin announced the release to the French Parliament and got a standing ovation.

But Mr. Raffarin said the joy would not be fully complete until the two men are back, safe and sound, on French soil.

Earlier, the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera said the reporters had been handed over to the French embassy in Baghdad. But the French mission there did not confirm the report.

The two French reporters were taken hostage in mid-August by an Iraqi group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq. They had been traveling from Baghdad to the Iraqi town of Najaf at the time. Their Syrian chauffeur was also captured, but soldiers later found him in Fallujah.

The Islamic Army linked the kidnapping to a new French law banning the wearing of Muslim headscarves and other conspicuous religious symbols in public schools. The group called on Paris to rescind the law, which the French government refused to do.

France subsequently launched an all-out campaign for the reporters' release, complete with a tour of the Middle East by Foreign Minister Michel Barnier to seek the support of Arab governments that might have been able to influence the kidnappers.

Middle East expert Gilles Kepel partly credits the French diplomatic efforts for securing the release of the two Frenchmen.

Mr. Kepel told France Info radio that the effort by Arab leaders in the Middle East to secure the two men's release may not have had a direct impact on the hostage-takers. But he said it may have had an effect on people who had connections to the hostage-takers.

Mr. Chesnot and Mr. Malbrunot are among dozens of foreigners in Iraq who have been taken hostage in recent months. Many of them have been killed. But others, including two Italian women, have been released.

The kidnapping became a national cause in France. Posters of Mr. Chesnot and Mr. Malbrunot hang in front of the Paris City Hall. And every day they have been held hostage, Radio France has broadcast an announcement saying they would not be forgotten.