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Last Updated: Friday, 3 September, 2004, 17:02 GMT 18:02 UK
Iraq president halts French visit
The two hostages shown on al-Jazeera TV, 31 August 2004
The journalists said on videotape that they feared for their lives
Iraq's President Ghazi Yawer has postponed a visit to France scheduled for next week following the kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq.

The French foreign ministry said that it was due to the "circumstances linked to the situation of our countrymen".

Tensions have grown after Iraq's Prime Minister Iyad Allawi recently told a newspaper France was soft on terrorism - remarks France called "unacceptable".

France's prime minister has said the hostages' situation is still uncertain.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin said urged caution over reports that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot could soon be released.

In other news from Iraq:

  • Reports say two Iraqi civilians were killed when US forces shelled a residential area in the city of Falluja,

  • Police in Iraq sealed off the southern cities of Najaf and Kufa as worshippers gathered for the first Friday prayers since the end of fighting in the area. Iraqi police fired warning shots in the air to stop people entering the city,

  • Turkish Prime Minister Tayip Recep Erdogan is reported to have criticised the US over its failure to crack down on Turkish Kurd guerrillas sheltering in northern Iraq.

    Criticism

    Mr Yawer had been due to meet top French officials next week, but the visit was put on hold over the hostage crisis.

    He is still expected to meet political leaders in Germany, Italy, Poland and Belgium.

    "The conditions are not very favourable for such a visit," French diplomats were quoted by French news agency AFP as saying.

    Iraqi PM Iyad Allawi
    Allawi's comments provoked an angry response from France
    Tensions between Paris and Iraq were fuelled by comments by Iraq's Prime Minister Allawi in the Iraqi National Accord newspaper saying France's opposition to the war in Iraq had not spared it from terror.

    In an editorial, the newspaper said: "Chirac, who wants to present himself as fair, must take his share of responsibility for the kidnapping of his two compatriots as he opposed all international resolutions aimed at restoring Iraqi's security," according to AFP.

    France's foreign ministry issued a strongly worded statement saying Mr Allawi's remarks had been "unacceptable".

    Hopes were raised by reports on Thursday that the kidnappers had handed over the two French hostages to a group that favoured releasing them.

    Influential clerics were quoted as saying it was only "a matter of time" before the journalists would be released.

    But Reuters reported a statement posted on an Islamist website denying the kidnappers had given the men up and would soon decide their fate.

    'Utmost prudence'

    The kidnappers, believed to be from the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI), originally said the men would be killed unless France repealed a law banning the wearing of Islamic headscarves in state schools, which came into force with little opposition on Thursday.

    The latest statement purporting to be from the kidnappers said: "The Islamic Army's legal committee will soon announce its decision. We have not delegated any group or person to negotiate or talk on our behalf."

    Mr Chesnot, 37, of Radio France Internationale and Mr Malbrunot, 41, of French daily Le Figaro were abducted while working in Iraq in August.

    Le Figaro deputy editor Charles Lambroschini told BBC News on Thursday the hostages had been handed over to an Iraqi Sunni Muslim opposition group prepared to set them free.

    But Mr Raffarin urged ministers "to exercise the utmost prudence in your public statements".

    "The information we've gathered, even if positive, remains uncertain," he said.




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