French Moves To Free Iraq Hostages

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French envoys held crisis talks with Muslim clerics in Iraq on Thursday in a desperate bid to free two kidnapped journalists, while a militant group released a video purportedly showing the killing of three Turkish hostages and warning foreigners to leave the country.

The video coincided with the discovery by Iraqi police of the bodies of two Turkish citizens and an unidentified man at a rural farm in northern Iraq. It could not immediately be confirmed whether the bodies belonged to the men in the video.

Representatives of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, which serves as a link to President Jacques Chirac, met with leaders of an influential Sunni clerical organization with alleged ties to insurgents at a Baghdad mosque and urged them to intervene in the abduction of the two French reporters.

"Journalists have never been enemies of any people," said Abdallah Zekri, a French council official. "Free them. But free them whilst we are here. Their families are suffering, their children are in pain."

A militant group calling itself "The Islamic Army of Iraq" said it had kidnapped veteran French reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot and demanded that France lift its ban on Islamic headscarves in public schools.

In other recent developments:

  • In Fallujah, angry crowds denounced the United States as they mourned the victims of a U.S. airstrike on an alleged militant safehouse that killed 17 people, including three children, and left a gaping six-yard crater. The U.S. military said it had carried out a precision strike late Wednesday on a safehouse in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, used by followers of al-Zarqawi. Witnesses said the strike hit a residential house in the southern neighborhood of al-Jubail.

  • Two civilians were killed and another 12 injured during clashes between insurgents and U.S. forces in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, police Lt. Nasir Hussein said.

  • Two people were killed in a roadside bomb explosion about 45 miles southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk, police Col. Sarhat Qadir said.

  • In downtown Baghdad, an insurgent threw a hand grenade at a passing police vehicle, injuring one officer and setting the car ablaze. U.S. troops quickly arrived to put out the fire and secure the area.

    Millions of French students opened the school year Thursday with the law in effect, after the government refused to lift it. Muslim leaders in France, who have largely opposed the law but denounced the hostage-taking, urged calm. No major incidents were reported.

    Although the law bans students from wearing apparel like the Jewish skull cap and large Christian crosses, it clearly targets head scarves, viewed as a sign of rising Muslim fundamentalism and a threat to modern-day France's secular society.

    Since the militants released a video Saturday saying they had kidnapped the men, the French government has been working furiously for their release, backed by an unprecedented display of unity from voices ranging from human rights groups to hard-line Muslim clerics.

    France has no troops in Iraq and gained points with Arabs for leading the opposition to last year's U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

    French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was in Qatar on Thursday after high-level talks in Cairo, Egypt, and Amman, Jordan. A French special envoy also was dispatched to Baghdad to pursue back-channel contacts with the hostage-takers. Chesnot and Malbrunot were last heard from on Aug. 19 as they set off for the southern city of Najaf. Their Syrian driver also vanished.

    Jean de Belot, the managing editor of Le Figaro, the daily newspaper that employs Malbrunot, told French radio Thursday that authorities have information from "indirect contact" with the kidnappers suggesting the two journalists were alive, despite the passing of a deadline that had been extended to Wednesday.

    After the meeting at the Baghdad mosque, Sheik Harith al-Dhari of the Muslim Scholars Association, which is believed to have links to Sunni insurgents, called for the immediate release of the French hostages.

    "I appeal to the kidnappers to release the hostages immediately, immediately. I have never used the word immediately before, but I am using it in appreciation for this (French) delegation," he told reporters.

    The meeting Thursday came as the Arab television station Al-Jazeera reported that it had received a video from a militant group in Iraq linked to al Qaeda that showed three Turkish hostages being killed.

    The station said it had a statement claiming responsibility from Tawhid and Jihad, a group tied to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant held responsible for a string of bombings, kidnappings and other attacks in Iraq.

    The station broadcast only part of the video, but not the footage showing the killings. It did not say how the three were killed.

    The brief segment showed three men sitting on the floor with three masked men, two of them armed, standing behind them. One of the masked men read a statement.

    "The time of forgiveness has gone. You have nothing left but killing and beheading," said the brief printed Arabic statement, which Al-Jazeera showed on its screen.

    Police said they were only able to identify two of the bodies found near the northern city of Samarra, Majeed Mohammed and Yahya Qadir, both of Turkish nationality. The Foreign Ministry in Ankara and the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad said they had no information.

    Militants waging a violent 16-month insurgency in Iraq have increasingly turned to kidnapping foreigners here as part of an effort to drive out coalition forces and contractors. Other groups have taken hostages in hopes of extorting ransom.

    Another militant group released seven foreign truck drivers Wednesday, whom they held hostage for six weeks, after receiving a half million dollar ransom payment.

    • Joel Roberts

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