- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 2, 2004

BAGHDAD — A Paris newspaper editor said there had been positive movement in the effort to free two captive French journalists yesterday, while a separate militant group said it had killed three Turkish hostages.

The kidnappers in Iraq have handed over the French pair to an Iraqi Sunni Muslim opposition group, Jean de Belot, managing editor of Le Figaro newspaper, said on France Info radio.

But he stressed that their status wasn’t completely clear. “We must be prudent in this kind of mixed-up situation because we know well that until the good news arrives, we can’t let ourselves be absolutely reassured.”

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was cautiously optimistic.

“According to the indications, which were given to us and we are studying at this moment with caution, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot are alive, in good health and are being well treated,” Mr. Barnier said at a press conference in Amman, Jordan.

In the other kidnapping case yesterday, Arab television station Al Jazeera reported that it had received a video from a militant group in Iraq linked to al Qaeda showing the slaying of three Turkish hostages.

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

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry in Ankara and the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad both said they had no information on the fate of the men.

The French effort to win the release of its hostages became urgent after a deadline passed for Paris to revoke a ban on the wearing of Muslim head scarves in public schools that went into effect yesterday.

A militant group calling itself “The Islamic Army of Iraq” said it had kidnapped the reporters and demanded that France lift its ban on Islamic head scarves in public schools. But the government refused.

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.

In the past week, militants have killed an Italian journalist and 12 Nepalese workers, while seven truckers from India, Kenya and Egypt were released after their employer paid a $500,000 ransom.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell acknowledged yesterday that the Bush administration miscalculated the strength of the insurgency here, but said the United States would “not become faint of heart” in enforcing its Iraq policy.

“What we have to do is to defeat this insurgency,” Mr. Powell said in an interview Wednesday with Panama’s TVN Channel 2. A text was released yesterday by the State Department. “Let’s remember who is causing this trouble. It’s not the United States. It’s not the coalition forces that are there,” he said.

But he conceded that “it is clear we did not expect an insurgency that would be this strong.”

The Defense Department announced this week that the death toll for U.S. military personnel in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was 975 and the number of wounded was approaching 7,000.

French Muslim envoys had earlier expressed optimism that Mr. Chesnot and Mr. Malbrunot would be freed after meeting with leaders of an influential Sunni clerical organization with suspected ties to insurgents at a Baghdad mosque.

“There are much more reasons to trust in a serene, very positive outcome of the situation rather than the contrary,” Abdallah Zekri of the Paris Mosque said after the session.

Using France’s formidable diplomatic clout in the region, President Jacques Chirac has made good on a pledge to spare no effort to save the lives of the journalists.

France has won massive support from leaders throughout the Arab world, cashing in on Paris’ strong backing for the Palestinians and its anti-war stance in Iraq.

Despite opposition among France’s sizeable Muslim community, Paris’ effort to rein in Islamic fundamentalism with the ban on Islamic head scarves in schools passed its first test yesterday, with 240 girls showing up for the first day of class with their heads covered.

But Muslim girls were under extra pressure to comply to avoid deepening the hostage crisis.

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