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Last Updated: Saturday, 2 October, 2004, 22:16 GMT 23:16 UK
France slams hostages 'mediator'
Didier Julia
Mr Julia's Middle East hostage mission was unofficial
France has criticised unofficial negotiators for frustrating the country's efforts to gain the release of two French hostages held in Iraq.

French parliamentarian Didier Julia has been leading unofficial attempts to free the two journalists, kidnapped in August with their Syrian driver.

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier says he had indirect contact with the hostage-takers before Mr Julia's efforts.

But, he says, these broke off when the private mediation began.

In other hostage-related developments:

  • An Iraqi militant group, Ansar al-Sunna, posts video footage on its website showing an Iraqi man being beheaded for working for the US in Iraq
  • Militants holding two Indonesian women hostage say they will free them if Jakarta releases Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, a cleric suspected of leading the radical Jemaah Islamiah group. Ba'asyir rejects the link and demands the "immediate" release of the women, according to reports

  • A Jordanian transport company, Starline, says it will halt is operations in Iraq after kidnappers threatened to kill one of the firm's employees.

'Scapegoat'

Mr Barnier said he hoped these unofficial efforts "will not have a negative effect on the negotiations or delay the deliberations".

"All the progress we have made was interrupted on 28 September by the parallel steps taken by Mr Julia's group."

Mr Julia is believed to be working closely with Philippe Brett, a little-known figure with a history of political dealings in France and Iraq.

Simona Pari (left) and Simona Torretta

Speaking in the Syrian capital Damascus, Mr Julia dismissed the foreign ministry's fears.

He told Reuters news agency that it seemed Mr Barnier was using him to mask the government's own lack of success in freeing the two men.

"I don't see how our mission has placed the lives of the hostages in danger," he said.

"I believe Barnier, faced by the inability to do anything in the past 45 days, is looking for a scapegoat."

France, which opposed the US-led war in Iraq, has so far been unable to secure the release of 41-year-old Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, 37.

The government has despatched its own official envoy to Jordan to negotiate for their release.

On Friday Mr Julia said that a convoy bringing the captives to Syria came under US fire, scuppering their release.

However, the American military say they have had no reports of such an incident.




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