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France slams hostages 'mediator'

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France slams hostages 'mediator'

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.

Speaking in the Jordanian capital Amman, 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.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3710746.stm

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Chirac unity call in hostage row

The French President has called for national unity for the sake of two French hostages in Iraq, as a row broke out over a failed attempt to free them.

Jacques Chirac called the hostages' security and release "our only goal".

An MP from Mr Chirac's party flew to Damascus last week to try to negotiate the release of journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot.

But Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin criticised the attempt, which he said had "no official mandate".

"The government did not approve of it. The government does not approve of it," Mr Raffarin said.

The MP who went to Syria, Didier Julia, claimed last week that he and a French former commando, Philippe Brett, were in touch with the hostage-takers and on the verge of securing the reporters' release.

He later said a convoy carrying the French hostages had been bombed by the US - a charge denied by the Americans.

The BBC's Caroline Wyatt in Paris says nobody in France knows the truth of any of these claims, but they are asking if the disastrous mission was approved by the government.

Videotape

Mr Raffarin says the intervention may have endangered the hostages' lives.

Some have speculated that the mission may have been an officially-backed attempt to pay a ransom, our correspondent says.

As tensions surfaced more than six weeks after the hostages were seized, Mr Chirac appealed for the country to pull together.

"In this ordeal, the strength of our action rests on the cohesion of the whole nation," he said.

Meanwhile Mr Raffarin's office said the French authorities had received a videotape on 22 September, which showed the men alive.

An MP from Mr Chirac's party, Bernard Accoyer, said they were "apparently in good health".

Story from BBC NEWS:

http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/worl...ope/3717826.stm

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