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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 December 2004, 21:30 GMT
France's long hostage wait ends
By Henri Astier
BBC News website

Members of Reporters Sans Frontieres release balloons in front of the Eiffel Tower a month after Christian Chesnot, Georges Malbrunot and Mohammed al-Jundi were abducted
There has been a tireless campaign in France to free the men
The fate of Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot gripped France throughout their four-month captivity.

Some newspapers counted the days since the journalists were captured by Iraqi militants.

Celebrities - such as film-stars Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche - broadcast radio appeals reminding listeners that the two men and their Syrian driver were being held.

Politicians of all stripes made it clear that the hostages were always on their minds.

A conservative minister earlier this week said the government was working "seven days a week" to secure their release.

Giant pictures of the two men were hung from the capital's socialist-controlled City Hall.

In case the message had failed to register with some Parisians, advocates had launched a poster campaign with portraits of the hostages splashed across the city in the run-up to Christmas.


Public anxiety about Mr Chesnot and Mr Malbrunot was reminiscent of the hostage crisis of 1985-1987 - when nine Frenchmen, mostly diplomats and journalists, were seized in Lebanon.

Hello, this is Catherine Deneuve... As long as they are hostages (in Iraq), we are too. Don't forget them
Radio appeal, 17 September

As was the case then, authorities had been under enormous pressure to act in recent months.

After the 20 August abductions, President Jacques Chirac went on national television to show his determination to bring the two men home - a message he renewed on the 100th day of their captivity.

In late August, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier went on a tour of the Middle East to enlist the help of Arab governments, who could do little more than call for the hostages' release.

On 31 August, hopes were raised when al-Arabiya TV announced that they would be freed imminently - but the French held their breath in vain.

Over the next few months the gruesome killing of some foreign hostages in Iraq and the release of others only added to the sense of desperation about the journalists.

Freelance bid

The most bizarre episode of the saga occurred in late September, when a French MP, Didier Julia, and an associate with a history of dealings with Iraq launched an unofficial attempt to free the two.

The French hostages were shown on al-Jazeera TV
A video with the journalists was released in September
The associate claimed to have gone into Iraq, while Mr Julia told French media that the crisis was almost over.

Dozens of journalists went to the Iraq-Syria border to await the freed hostages. But they never came.

The French government criticised the freelance negotiators for disrupting its own negotiation attempt.

Paris had made clear from the beginning it was not willing to give in to what was believed to be the captors' main demand - the withdrawal of a French law banning Islamic headscarves and other religious signs from state schools.

It is not clear what price, if any, the government paid for Mr Chesnot and Mr Malbrunot's freedom.

The French are unlikely to know anytime soon.

Seventeen years after the end of the Lebanon hostage crisis, the negotiations between France and the captors' Iranian patrons remain shrouded in mystery.

One thing is certain, however - French politicians will be exceedingly relieved by the hostages' safe return.

President Chirac is breaking off a holiday in Morocco to welcome the journalists when they arrive in Paris.

"At the end of this long wait, shared by all the French, I want to express all our joy to our two compatriots and to their families and their loved ones who showed extraordinary courage and responsibility," he said.

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