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France Welcomes Freed Iraq Hostages Home

French reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot returned to France Wednesday, after being held hostage in Iraq for 124 days. The conditions that led to the men's release are a matter of speculation.

Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were given a hero's welcome when they landed in France Wednesday evening. Their release by the shadowy extremist group the Islamic Army in Iraq has been hailed as an early Christmas present to the nation.

The two men were smiling when they arrived at the Villacoublay military base near Paris, shortly before 6:30 p.m., local time. They embraced members of their family, and spoke briefly to reporters. Mr. Malbrunot said that he and Mr. Chesnot had experienced difficult times but they never lost hope. He said their kidnappers had moved them to five different houses during their stay. Two times earlier, he said, it looked like they might be released. But it never happened. He denounced a freelance effort to release the hostages by French lawmaker Didier Julia. Mr. Julia claimed he had almost secured the reporters' liberation. Mr. Malbrunot said that was totally untrue.

The two reporters were greeted by French President Jacques Chirac, who cut short a vacation to Morocco Tuesday to fly back to France and meet them. They were then expected to be debriefed about their detention by French security services. In remarks earlier in the day, the French President praised the French nation and thanked foreign partners who worked to secure the liberation of the two reporters. For all its diversity, Mr. Chirac said, the French nation had pulled together to affirm its cohesion, its solidarity and its values.

Mr. Chesnot and Mr. Malbrunot were taken hostage on August 20, as they headed south from Baghdad with their Syrian driver. The driver was found unharmed in Fallujah a few weeks ago. The kidnappers demanded that France repeal a law that prohibited the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state schools. French officials refused.

Even before the two men arrived to France Wednesday, speculation has been rife about the conditions surrounding their release. Earlier in the day, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin denied that Paris had paid a ransom for the reporters.

In an interview with France Info radio, Mr. Chesnot's sister, Anne-Marie said French authorities had notified the family a few days ago that "the wind was turning in the right direction," and that there was renewed optimism and confidence. But Ms. Chesnot said the government offered no specifics about whether or when the hostages would be released.

Dozens of foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq in recent months. A number have been killed, including British aid worker Margaret Hassan.

Analysts suggest France's close and long-standing ties with many Arab leaders in the Middle East - not to mention its staunch opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq - may have helped its efforts to rescue Mr. Chesnot and Mr. Malbrunot.

The fact Paris cared for ailing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat also improved its image as an Arab friend and ally. Mr. Arafat died in a Paris-area hospital last month. Other observers suggest that internal Iraqi politics - notably January elections in that country - may also have played a role.

Sunni campaigners with links to the Islamic Army may have pressured the group to release the two French men to improve their image ahead of the vote, which Iraq's majority Shiites are heavily favored to win.