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2 French hostages released in Iraq

Radio France International's Christian Chesnot (left) and Le Figaro's Georges Malbruno.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Two French journalists held hostage by an Iraqi insurgency group since August have been released, the French Foreign Ministry says.

Their captors, a group known as the Islamic Army in Iraq, said Tuesday it had delivered the two to the French Embassy in Baghdad, the Arab-language television network Al-Jazeera reported.

Christian Chestnot, a reporter for Radio France International, and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro were reported missing August 21 after they left Baghdad for Najaf.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman said they are in the hands of French diplomats, but did not specify their location or condition.

An Iraqi insurgency group said in a statement posted on Islamist Web sites Tuesday that it released the two journalists for several reasons -- including some French government positions on Iraq and appeals by Islamic groups for the pair's freedom.

The militant group had earlier demanded the French government repeal a ban on the wearing of head scarves by Muslim girls in public schools.

The law, which also covers religious items such as yarmulkes and large crosses, took effect at the start of the school year. Many experts have said fear of radical Islam contributed to the ban.

The French government has been attempting to win the journalists' freedom but had balked at repealing the ban.

French Muslim leaders had joined government officials in condemning the kidnappings.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at five million.

Although France was opposed to the war in Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has said, "neutrality doesn't exist. The Frenchmen are deluding themselves if they think they can remain outside of this. Today the extremists are targeting them, too."

In its statement Tuesday, the militant group said: "The Islamic Army in Iraq announces the release of the two French journalists for the following reasons:

  • "No evidence to prove the spying charges.
  • "The proof of their fine position towards our beloved Palestine.
  • "Some French government positions towards Iraq.
  • "Appeals by Islamic groups and organizations.
  • "Thus the legitimate court decided to release them today at 4 p.m. and they were handed over to the French embassy directly," the statement said, according to a translation.

    "An interview was conducted with the pair prior to their release. It will be broadcast later," it said.

    "In doing so, the Islamic Army in Iraq wishes to confirm its insistence on applying the rule of God in all matters including prisoners and hostages."

    --CNN Correspondent Jim Bittermann in Paris contributed to this report

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