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Former Iraq hostages back in Paris

French government says no ransom paid for two journalists

Chesnot, left, and Malbrunot speak to reporters after arriving in Paris.
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French reporters, held captive in Iraq for four months, return home
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PARIS, France (CNN) -- Two French journalists taken hostage by an Iraqi insurgency group in August and released Tuesday received a joyful greeting as they arrived in Paris.

Christian Chesnot, a reporter for Radio France International, and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro landed at Villacoublay Military Airfield outside of Paris about 6:25 p.m. (12:25 p.m. ET) Wednesday.

Both journalists appeared to be healthy as they stepped off the plane to hugs from weeping friends and relatives. French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin were among those greeting the men.

The two were reunited with some family members earlier in the day in Cyprus. The relatives traveled on a plane carrying the French foreign minister.

"We are very happy to be home, because when you are a hostage, you don't know what will be tomorrow," Malbrunot said, speaking in French.

"You can be released, you can be killed. You can wait for two weeks, you can wait for six months, you can wait for two years, so, you know, there is pressure. ... It's a very tough situation when you are surrounded by people with guns, masks."

Chesnot and Malbrunot were reported missing August 21 after they left Baghdad for Najaf.

An Iraqi insurgent group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq said in a statement posted on Islamist Web sites Tuesday it released the pair for several reasons, including some French government positions on Iraq and appeals by Islamic groups for their freedom.

French government sources said the release was arranged through intermediaries, and no ransom was asked and none was paid.

Chestnot's supervisor at Radio France International said the two were in good health and were treated reasonably well. The conditions in which the two were held was not known.

The militant group had 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.

The French government had been attempting to win the journalists' freedom but did not repeal the ban. French Muslim leaders had joined government officials in condemning the kidnappings.

Sources credited the French Muslim community with helping to aid in the release arrangements.

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at 5 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."

Chirac broke off a Christmas vacation in Morocco and returned to France, going on national television to hail the release of Malbrunot and Chesnot. Chirac spoke of his "personal joy" and that of the whole country.

Family members spoke of their joy at the men's release.

"It's a very beautiful Christmas present, the most beautiful Christmas present you could have," Chesnot's brother Thierry told reporters.

In a short address, the French leader praised the unity shown by political and religious leaders during "this very difficult test," and firmly condemned all terrorist acts.

'Explanations' sought

But opposition leaders said they planned to press him on why it took a country which opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq, and says it has strong ties in the Middle East, so long to secure the release.

"We must ask for explanations about all stages of their detention," Francois Hollande, leader of the opposition Socialist Party, told Reuters.

"Now their freedom has been secured, informing parliament about all the conditions of how the discussions have unfolded since August is the least thing that can be done."

French newspapers hailed the journalists' release but some also reflected on the government's handling of the crisis in which it initially raised expectations of a quick release and then became increasingly cautious.

A freelance mediation effort by a member of Chirac's ruling conservative party failed to free the men in October. The fiasco led to angry exchanges in parliament although political leaders quickly closed ranks again.

"French diplomacy comes out of it damaged," said Liberation newspaper. "Its traditional Arab policy and non-alignment in the Bush crusade in Iraq did not protect it against the worst or impose it (France's view) on the international scene. It must draw the conclusions."

More than 120 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since April, of whom more than three dozen have been killed. Some, like Briton Kenneth Bigley and British-Iraqi Margaret Hassan, pleaded in vain for their lives in videos released by their captors.

The National Federation of the Italian Press, a journalists' union, expressed relief that the two French men were released, saying security issues for reporters in war zones "must at this point become a big issue for the entire world of communications."

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

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