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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 21:17 GMT 22:17 UK
Frenchmen 'held by Iraqi group'
Missing French journalists Malbrunot and Chesnot
The two journalists were last heard from more than a week ago
An Iraqi militant group has announced it is holding two missing French journalists, according to Arabic television station al-Jazeera.

The group is reportedly demanding that the French government end a ban on Muslim headscarves in French schools in exchange for releasing them.

The two missing men are Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro.

The headscarf ban is due to come into effect in September.

Al-Jazeera, quoting unidentified sources, named the militant group as the Islamic Army of Iraq.

A group with the same name has said it was responsible for the killing of kidnapped Italian journalist, Enzo Baldoni, earlier this week.

Muslim protests

The al-Jazeera newsreader said the group described the French law banning religious apparel in public schools as "an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms".

It said the kidnappers wanted France to reject the ban within 48 hours.

Signed by President Jacques Chirac earlier this year, the law forbids religious apparel and "conspicuous" signs that show a student's religious affiliation.

Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses will also be banned.

The law has sparked protests at home and abroad, with many Muslims saying they feel unfairly targeted

The French foreign ministry said Mr Chesnot and Mr Malbrunot had not been heard from since last week, when they were believed to have been heading from Baghdad to Najaf.

Najaf at the time was the besieged stronghold of radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr.

The BBC's James Ingham
"The headscarf ban was a controversial policy"

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