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Last Updated: Monday, 30 August, 2004, 21:49 GMT 22:49 UK
French hostages plead for lives
The two hostages shown on al-Jazeera TV
Both journalists are experts on Iraq
Two French journalists held hostage in Iraq have urged their government to lift a ban on Muslim headscarves in schools to save their lives.

In a new video shown on Arabic TV station al-Jazeera, the men also called on French people to protest against the law, due to come into force this week.

A deadline set by the kidnappers for the rescinding of the ban has apparently been extended by 24 hours.

Earlier, thousands demonstrated across France in solidarity with the hostages.

The BBC's Angus Roxburgh in Paris reports that a large crowd of people gathered in the city's Trocadero Square on Monday evening, to show their support for Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper.

Paris demonstration
Thousands in France demonstrated solidarity with the journalists
He says French people have been appalled by their plight, and are baffled that the country's citizens should have been targeted by Iraqi militants, given France's vocal opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Many Muslim women in headscarves joined the protests for the journalists' release.

The French government has refused to give in to the kidnappers' demands to lift the ban on overtly religious apparel in schools first made in an earlier video, broadcast on Saturday.

Gunmen calling themselves the Islamic Army of Iraq gave the French authorities 48 hours to overturn the ban they said was "an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms".

The group, which said it executed an Italian journalist last week, extended its ultimatum by 24 hours, al-Jazeera reported.

Both men, speaking in English, called for the new rules for schools to be overturned.

"We might die at any moment if this law is not repealed," Mr Malbrunot said.

'Men of goodwill'

Earlier in the day, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier launched a whistle-stop tour of the Middle East, seeking support for the release of the hostages.

Ban proposed in December 2003 and backed by parliament in March
Lays down that "conspicuous" religious items may not be worn in schools
Forbidden items will include Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap and large Christian crucifixes

He told a news conference in Cairo that the men - said to have been heading from Baghdad to Najaf when they disappeared over a week ago - had been doing their job to explain the realities of Iraq to the outside world.

"These two men of goodwill have always shown their understanding for these people and their fondness for the Arab and Muslim world.

"I call for their release in the name of principles of humanity and respect for the human being which are at the very heart of the message of Islam and the religious practices of Muslims."

After holding talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Amr Moussa, Secretary General of the Arab League, Mr Barnier left for the Jordanian capital Amman.

There he is scheduled for talks with King Abdullah II and Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Moasher, who has pledged every assistance in the effort to secure the release of the journalists.

The foreign ministry in Paris also announced that a diplomatic envoy, Hubert Colin de Verdiere, was heading to the Iraqi capital Baghdad.

Correspondents say the ban on the Muslim headscarf in schools is a central policy, designed to maintain France's tradition of strictly separating state and religion.

The law comes into effect when school resumes this week.

It forbids state school students from wearing "conspicuous" religious apparel. Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses will also be banned.

The BBC's James Ingham
"France had never expected trouble from Iraq after staying out of the war"

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