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French hostage deadline 'extended'

Arab League says it wins another 24-hour extension

From CNN Correspondent Jim Bittermann

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PARIS, France (CNN) -- With French officials mounting a diplomatic offensive, the Arab League says it has won another 24-hour extension for two French journalists being held by a radical Islamic group in Iraq.

The deadline for executing the two, which would have come Tuesday night in Baghdad, has now been pushed back to Wednesday night, an Arab League official said.

The group holding the two -- the Islamic Army in Iraq -- is demanding that the French government repeal a law that bans from public schools -- among other religious items -- head scarves worn by Muslim girls.

The French government has been feverishly attempting to win the freedom of the two journalists but has balked at repealing the ban, which was approved earlier this year and will go into effect this week.

News of the deadline extension came on a day that another radical group said it had executed 12 Nepalese workers who it accused of cooperating with the American occupation of Iraq.

In Baghdad, the Association of Muslim Scholars held a news conference to call for the release of the French hostages.

"The Iraqi resistance is a right for every Iraqi Muslim. When we feel that our sons are crossing the line of what is acceptable we step in to show our sons the right path. Killing the two French hostages is not the right thing to do," said Mohammad Bashar al-Faidi, a spokesman for the scholars.

"We have no direct contact with the group that holds the French men hostage so we are sending them an open letter through this press conference. This is the first time the Association of Muslim Scholars sends an open letter like this one, but the situation is very dangerous and the deadline is getting nearer. So we send this message to our sons of the lslamic Army."

In Falluja, an Iraqi group, the Falluja Mujahidin Shura Council, also issued a call for the two to be released because of France's opposition to the war and the American occupation of Iraq.

"Given France's humanitarian stance toward Iraq's issue and its occupation by opposing occupation and demanding an end to American presence in Iraq, and for other positions, we appeal to our brothers in faith and arms in the Islamic Army to release the French journalists in appreciation for these stands," said a statement from the group.

In addition, a group of imams from the Paris region met Tuesday morning at the grand mosque in central Paris to hold a prayer service for the two journalists.

The service was attended by Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoue and French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin.

The rector of the mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, said, "These hostages are sons of France and are our brothers. We demand of all in good faith to respect the principles of Islam."

French Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin met with his cabinet in an emergency session Tuesday morning. Following the meeting, ministers refused to talk to reporters.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was in Amman to meet with Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muashar. He also may meet with King Abdullah II. The meetings come after Barnier visited with Egyptian officials on Monday in hopes of finding some way to secure the captives' freedom.

Visiting Russia, French President Jacques Chirac brought up the crisis in his discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Arabic-language news network Al-Jazeera aired a videotaped statement late Monday from the two missing journalists -- Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot.

"We ask the French government to show their good intentions towards the Arab and Islamic world and abolish the head scarf law, which is an unjust and unfair law," Chesnot said.

"We ask the French people to demonstrate against this law and to ask the French government to reverse it before we pay our lives as a price for it. We don't have much time. It could be a matter of minutes."

Al-Jazeera said the Islamic Army was giving the French government an additional 24 hours to respond to its demand. On Saturday, the group had given the French government 48 hours to respond. Now, according to the Arab League, the deadline has been pushed back another 24 hours to Wednesday.

"We call on every French person and every person who values life to demonstrate against the head scarf law," Malbrunot said. "Our lives are in danger, and I appeal to President Chirac to do something and abolish this law."

But a government spokesman said France will not give in to calls to stay the ban on head scarves.

"The law will be applied," spokesman Jean-Francois Cope told Canal Plus television Monday.

The law that the Iraqi group opposes bans not only Muslim head scarves, but other religious symbols from public schools, including Jewish skullcaps and large crosses. The measure goes into effect this week at the start of the new school year.

Chesnot, a reporter for Radio France International, and Malbrunot, of the French newspaper Le Figaro, were reported missing August 21 after leaving for Najaf from Baghdad. Al-Jazeera reported the men were captives of the same group that claimed to have kidnapped an Italian journalist and killed him after Italy refused to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

The kidnappings have brought together all sides in the head scarf debate. French Muslim leaders have joined French government officials in condemning the kidnappings.

French officials had felt that French citizens were largely immune to the rash of kidnappings in Iraq because of their strong opposition to the war in Iraq. However, the controversial law banning head scarves has evoked outrage in the Muslim world.

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