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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 December, 2004, 19:14 GMT
French journalists freed in Iraq
French reporters Christian Chesnot (left) and Georges Malbrunot, held hostage in Iraq
Christian and Georges worked together regularly
Militants in Iraq have freed French reporters Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, who were taken hostage on 20 August.

The French foreign ministry confirmed an Arabic TV report that the two men had been set free and said they would return to France on Wednesday.

They were abducted while driving to the city of Najaf and appeared on a video released in October by their captors.

Their captors said they had been freed because of France's anti-war stance.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier is leaving Paris to bring them back.

President Jacques Chirac has announced he is cutting short a holiday in Morocco to greet the two men on their return to France, the French news agency AFP reports.

'Christmas gift'

France's defence ministry said it was preparing "emergency air transportation" for the men. The flight should take five or six hours.

They were [freed]... in response to appeals from Islamic institutions and bodies and in appreciation of the French government's stand on the Iraq issue
Islamic Army in Iraq

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin earlier announced the news to parliament, talking of his "profound joy" at the release.

Thierry Chesnot, brother of Christian, said it was a "wonderful Christmas present" and added that he had been told by the French prime minister's office that they were both in good health.

Reports conflicted as to whether the journalists were in Baghdad or Amman, in neighbouring Jordan.

Official French statements made no mention of any ransom being paid or other deal to secure the two men's release.

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

The French press ran a continuous campaign for their release.

Mr Chesnot, 37, was working for Radio France Internationale and Mr Malbrunot, 41, for Le Figaro daily newspaper.

They were taken 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.

Ransom dilemma

They were later reported to have requested a ransom but a statement quoted by Arabic TV channel al-Jazeera on Tuesday said the reporters were freed for political reasons.

They were freed "because they were proven not to spy for US forces, in response to appeals and demands from Islamic institutions and bodies, and in appreciation of the French government's stand on the Iraq issue and the two journalists' stand on the Palestinian cause", the IAI was quoted as saying.

Governments have been reluctant to pay ransoms for hostages taken in Iraq and elsewhere in order not to encourage further abductions.

When two Italian hostages were freed in Iraq in September, the government in Rome denied paying a ransom.

However a senior Italian politician said at the time that he believed a ransom of $1m or more had been paid for the two aid workers, Simona Pari and Simona Torretta.

MP Gustavo Selva described the denial as purely "official".


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
There had been little news about the men for months



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