French Journalists Released in Iraq

Iraqi militants released two French journalists who had been held captive for four months, bringing to a happy conclusion the longest hostage ordeal in Iraq, French officials said today.

Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot were under the protection of French authorities today and were expected to arrive Wednesday in Paris, according to a French foreign ministry official.

"They are with people from the French Embassy in Baghdad, and they will be in Paris tomorrow," the official said. "This has been the result of continuous work for many weeks."

Chesnot's brother, Thierry, said the two men were in good health. "It's the best Christmas present we could get," he said, according to Associated Press.

There were few details about the timing and the circumstances under which the kidnappers turned the hostages over to French authorities.

Some reports indicated that the correspondents were already in Amman, Jordan, when the news of their release broke this evening. In France, legislators broke into a long ovation after the announcement in the National Assembly by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

"I have the profound joy of announcing that Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot have been freed," Raffarin said.

The drama was long, agonizing and strange for the French government as well as Chesnot, a correspondent for Le Figaro newspaper, and Malbrunot, a reporter for Radio France International.

It began Aug. 20, when gunmen abducted the men and their Syrian driver on a notoriously violent stretch of highway south of Baghdad. The self-proclaimed Islamic Army in Iraq took credit for the kidnapping and threatened to kill the men if France did not scuttle a new law banning Islamic headscarves in public schools. Although the French government refused the demand, it deployed a diplomatic and press offensive among its many allies in the Arab world, urging the militants to release the journalists and emphasizing France's opposition to the war in Iraq.

A few weeks later, U.S. military officers believed they had located the militants' hideout and offered to attempt a commando raid to liberate the hostages, but French officials declined, according to a U.S. official.

Hopes were raised and dashed at the end of September when a maverick French legislator with murky intelligence contacts in the Arab world flew to Syria and announced an imminent release that never materialized. He was accused of derailing the official negotiations and endangering the hostages. In the aftermath, the embarrassed French government kept nearly silent about the case while French diplomats and agents continued efforts to negotiate in the labyrinth of Iraq's guerrilla groups-efforts that paid off resoundingly.

The reporters were among more than 170 foreign hostages kidnapped in Iraq. More than 30 of the hostages have been killed, according to AP.