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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 December 2004, 18:14 GMT
Hostage coup boosts French pride
France has lavished praise on the painstaking work of its foreign intelligence agency, the DGSE, credited with securing the release of two hostages held for 124 days in Iraq.
Georges Malbrunot (right) and Christian Chesnot
The two men were held longer than any other hostages in Iraq

Journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot returned to a heroes' welcome in France on Wednesday.

But a controversial French deputy who had led an abortive freelance bid to deal with the hostage-takers in September came in for a torrent of criticism.

It is still unclear to what extent the reporters' nationality afforded them protection from their captors.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin rejected suggestions that a ransom was paid for their release - but speculation about a possible deal with the kidnappers remains rife.

From the very start of these negotiations... it was an operation conducted by the French services
Michel Barnier
French Foreign Minister

France's Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was full of praise for the DGSE's work.

"From start to finish the contacts, the reports, were received by our diplomatic post and dealt with by our diplomats, by our agents from the DGSE... in a country where we actually had no support," he told France Inter radio.

"From the very start of these negotiations... it was an operation conducted by the French services," he said.

Bitter row

An anonymous DGSE source told the French daily Le Monde that it was "a time-consuming task of following up every possible lead".

A man guards the French embassy compound in Baghdad
The men were finally handed over in a dangerous part of the capital

But maverick conservative deputy Didier Julia and his team came in for fierce criticism.

"They interrupted our efforts and caused the breakdown of negotiations which had almost succeeded on 28-29 September," Foreign Minister Barnier said.

Intelligence sources also claimed Mr Julia had tried to hijack the operation.

And soon after setting foot on French soil again, Georges Malbrunot launched a tirade against the deputy, accusing him of dashing official attempts to free him.

"I am outraged by their behaviour... it was playing with the lives of their compatriots which deserves nothing but contempt," he said.

Mr Julia, who claimed he had met the reporters on 28 September, shortly after the government had lost contact with the hostage-takers, brushed off calls for his expulsion from his party, saying he was being made a "scapegoat".


Details about the exact movements of the two men, held by the self-styled Islamic Army in Iraq, remain sketchy.

Some reports say they spent much of their time near Baghdad, where they were finally handed over to French officials.

Christian Chesnot in a video grab broadcast on an Arabic television network
The group is a real mosaic... held together by Islam
DGSE source

Others claim they were frequently moved around the country to avoid detection.

Le Monde says they spent much of their time in the rebel stronghold of Falluja, until the fierce American assault on the city forced their captors to flee with them.

The kidnappers released a statement saying they had freed the pair because they had been convinced that they were not American spies.

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

John Kent of the International Relations department at the London School of Economics says the release of the two hostages shows that France's very public opposition to the war in Iraq has paid off.

"It is a fantastic success - those citizens who have been associated with the opposition to the war in Iraq have successfully been safeguarded and protected," he said.

Disparate group

But a secret agent working for the DGSE told Le Figaro newspaper that their fate was never sure.

"We always felt we were in a race against time and the outcome could have been terrible," he said, referring to the deaths at the hands of the same group of an Italian, two Macedonians and two Pakistanis.

The agent said the Islamic Army of Iraq "works like an internal court - any decision is never that of a single head, but of all militants together".

"That's why it took so long to release the hostages - they had to reach a unanimous agreement," he said.

"This group is a real mosaic. There are old Baathists, nostalgic for Saddam [Hussein], religious fanatics and a few foreign fighters... They are held together by Islam."

The former hostages receive a hero's welcome

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