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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September, 2004, 17:08 GMT 18:08 UK
French hostages 'alive and well'
The two hostages shown on al-Jazeera TV, 31 August 2004
The journalists say they fear for their lives
A French Muslim delegation trying to secure the release of the two French journalists held hostage in Iraq says it has had proof the men are alive.

But the kidnappers, the Islamic Army, are said to be waiting for a response from al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden on whether they should kill the two men.

The militants have demanded that France scraps a ban on Muslim headscarves in schools, which took effect on Thursday.

French officials are still hopeful that the two men will be freed.

Mohamed Bichari, vice-president of France's Muslim French Council, held talks on Thursday with the Muslim Clerics' Association, an influential religious body that has called for the hostages' release.

After the meeting, Mr Bichari told reporters in Baghdad: "We have received proof that they are alive and well. We are optimistic and confident they will be released soon."

Muslim girls wear French flags as headscarves in protest

The two journalists are Christian Chesnot, 37, of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot, 41, of the French daily, Le Figaro.

The Islamic Army, who has proved itself ready to kill its captives in the past, has said that unless France scraps a law banning religious symbols in schools the journalists will die.

The BBC's Middle East correspondent Paul Wood, in Baghdad, says the group apparently posted a message on the internet asking for Bin Laden's opinion.

He says they ask the al-Qaeda leader to issue a fatwa, or religious ruling, on whether they can kill the hostages and ask for a reply within five hours.

Caution

Earlier on Thursday, the editor-in-chief of Le Figaro, Jean de Belot, told French radio he was holding out "cautious hope" for the two men and urged continued action on their behalf.

"They are alive and it's the complexity of the situation on the ground... that is obviously worrying," he said.

"There is indirect contact" with the hostage-takers, he said, adding that Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin did not want too many details to be made public as a precaution.

In recent days, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier has held meetings in Qatar, Jordan and Egypt during a visit to the Middle East to seek support for attempts to get the men released.

Arab leaders across the region have urged that the two men be freed, describing France, which strongly opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq, as a friend of Arabs.

First school day

The law, which bans large religious symbols from French state schools, came into effect on the first day of term for French children.

HAVE YOUR SAY
This is opportunism at its height, it is just posturing and flexing of muscles on the part of the kidnappers
Matt, UK

The measure affects 12 million children, some of whom may deliberately flout the law, correspondents say.

But, so far, most pupils have been observing the law by removing the headscarf or other symbols before entering school.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Paris says the hostage crisis has had one unexpected consequence - to rally the French behind their government, making it much harder for radical Muslims to protest against the ban.




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