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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 September, 2004, 20:44 GMT 21:44 UK
French hostages 'handed to group'
The two hostages shown on al-Jazeera TV, 31 August 2004
The journalists said earlier they feared for their lives
Kidnappers in Iraq have handed two French journalists to another group said to be prepared to free them, one of the men's editors told the BBC.

The second group, said to be from the Iraqi opposition, is "in favour of releasing them", Charles Lambroschini, Le Figaro deputy editor, told BBC News.

France's foreign minister said earlier that both men were alive and well.

The kidnappers had linked the men's fate to France's move to ban Islamic headscarves from schools.

They have been switched over, not released
Charles Lambroschini
Le Figaro
Christian Chesnot, 37, of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot, 41, of French daily Le Figaro were abducted while working in Iraq in August.

French Culture and Communications Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres later confirmed that the two captives were no longer in the hands of their original captors, believed to be the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI).

The BBC's Paul Wood reports from Baghdad that the French campaign to save the two men has won unprecedented support throughout the Arab and Muslim world, largely because France is not part of the military coalition in Iraq.

Concern was high as the IAI had already claimed the killing of abducted Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni.

'Big quarrel'

Mr Lambroschini said the men's original captors were mostly foreign Islamic fundamentalists who had given the captives to an Iraqi opposition group.

Headscarf protest in Strasbourg, France
France's secular laws have drawn religious protests
"They have been switched over, not released," he told the BBC's News 24 channel.

He said there had been a "big quarrel between the foreigners and the Iraqis".

Mr Lambroschini added that he hoped the two men could be freed on Friday or Saturday.

Thursday's development came after a French diplomatic drive led by Foreign Minister Michel Barnier and a group of leading French Muslims, who held talks in Baghdad with Iraqi counterparts.

Mr Barnier said earlier in the day that both hostages were "alive and well".

The IAI earlier claimed to be holding the two Frenchmen, who were shown in captivity in a video following their abduction in August.

France imposed its ban on religious symbols in school on Thursday with little opposition reported inside the country.

The BBC's Allan Little
"The hostage crisis has had a sobering effect on the row over the headscarf"

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