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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 December, 2004, 20:48 GMT
Freed French hostages arrive home
Christian Chesnot (L) and Georges Malbrunot speaking to the media
They are thought to be the longest-held hostages in Iraq
Two French reporters who were released after being held hostage for four months at the hands of Iraqi militants have arrived home to a hero's welcome.

Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot arrived in Paris to be greeted by President Jacques Chirac, who cut short his holiday in Morocco to be there.

"We're fine, we lived through a difficult experience," said Mr Malbrunot, a reporter for Le Figaro.

He said the two reporters had not been mistreated by their captors.

He said they had been in or around Baghdad most of the time, even though they had often been moved between various locations.

And they had never lost their hope of being released.

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has rejected suggestions that a ransom was paid for their release.

The men's captors said they were freed because of France's anti-war stance.

Anti-war card

Mr Chesnot, 37, and Mr Malbrunot, 41, arrived at the Villacoublay military airbase near Paris, after flying from Baghdad via Cyprus, where they were joined by French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier.

Looking emotional, but in good health, they had long embraces with family members before meeting President Chirac, and the French prime minister and defence minister.

It was a very tough situation when you are surrounded by people with guns, wearing masks
Georges Malbrunot

Mr Chesnot, a freelancer for Radio France Internationale, said "we understood that the kidnappers didn't want to kill us right away".

Nevertheless, they were happy to be home "because when you're a hostage you don't know what will happen", his colleague said.

"It was a very tough situation when you are surrounded by people with guns, wearing masks," Mr Malbrunot said.

"We played the French journalists card," he said - adding that they had told their captors they were not American and did not support the US-led invasion of Iraq.

He also criticised an attempt to free them in early October by conservative deputy Didier Julia, who he said had "gambled with the lives of two compatriots".

At the time, the French government said its efforts to negotiate the release of the two reporters had gone cold after Mr Julia's trip.

Jubilation

Mr Chesnot and Mr Malbrunot are thought to have been the longest-held Western hostages in Iraq.

As he greeted the men at the airport, President Chirac said he was there to express the joy of the whole nation.

The news of their release on Tuesday was greeted with jubilation across the country.

Papers showing release of reporters
The French press is celebrating and questioning the men's release
The Paris metro interrupted its usual warnings to passengers of train delays and pickpockets with a special announcement, the AFP news agency reported.

The journalists' supporters went round French cities pasting the word "Free" to posters put up to remind the country of the hostages' plight.

They were abducted while driving to the city of Najaf with their Syrian driver, Mohammed al-Jundi, who was later found during the US-led assault on Falluja.

The journalists' captors - the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI) - initially demanded that France scrap a law banning Muslim headscarves from being worn in schools - a demand shunned by France.

The BBC's Allan Little in Paris says that despite official denials that a ransom was paid, there is little doubt that French intelligence officers had been working on the ground in Iraq for months, seeking contact with the hostage-takers.

He says many in France will take the view that the men's release rewards and vindicates the country's opposition to the war in Iraq.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
The former hostages receive a hero's welcome



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