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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 December, 2004, 14:08 GMT
Freed French hostages head home
Papers showing release of reporters
The French press is celebrating and questioning the men's release
Two French reporters who were released after being held hostage for four months in Iraq are heading home to a hero's welcome.

Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, who were seized by militants in August, will be greeted by President Jacques Chirac on landing in France.

The French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin rejected suggestions that a ransom was paid for their release.

The men's captors said they were freed because of France's anti-war stance.

Their families called their release on Tuesday "the most beautiful Christmas present ever".

French news agency AFP said the two men were flown from Baghdad to Cyprus, where they boarded a plane which had brought French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier to the island to greet them.

'Profound joy'

Mr Chirac cut short a holiday in Morocco in order to be able to meet the two reporters on their return to the Villacoublay military airbase near Paris at around 1800 (1700 GMT).

He said Mr Chesnot, 37, and Mr Malbrunot, 41, had "put their lives on the line at the service of freedom of expression and of the right to information".

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

"They have been through a very difficult ordeal," he said in an address to the nation.

"In all our names, I wish to express to them our sympathy and our esteem."

He said their release was due in part to the solidarity of the French nation.

"We owe their release to the mobilisation and unity of all the French, to whom I wish to pay homage," he said.

"We owe it to the responsible and tenacious action of the government and of all the services which united in their endeavours with dedication and effectiveness."

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

The French press has been full of the "mystery" surrounding their release and says questions will be asked about a possible ransom payment.

But Mr Raffarin told a group of politicians that there had been "neither a demand nor a payment".

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 the reporters were in good health.

Press campaign

Mr Chesnot, working for Radio France Internationale and Mr Malbrunot, for Le Figaro daily newspaper, are thought to have been the longest-held Western hostages in Iraq.

The French press ran a continuous campaign for their release.

They were abducted while driving to the city of Najaf 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.

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 released for political reasons.

There had been little news about the men for months

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