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French Reporters Freed in Iraq

Two French journalists held hostage in Iraq for the past four months were freed Tuesday, officials said, sparking jubilation among relatives who called it "the most beautiful Christmas present ever."

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Reporters Christian Chesnot, left, and Georges Malbrunot - now free

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin informed the French senate "with deep joy" that the two, Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper, had been released.

The Iraqi insurgency group that had been holding the pair, the Islamic Army in Iraq, said it had freed the reporters because of France's stand against the US-led war in Iraq and its support for Palestinian statehood, the Arabic television station Al-Jazeera reported.

The brother of one of the reporters, Thierry Chesnot, said the two were in Amman late Tuesday and would be brought to Paris on Wednesday.

An early Christmas

"This is a huge relief. It's a wonderful Christmas present," he told AFP, adding that Raffarin's office had indicated the pair were "in good health."

Malbrunot's mother, Andree Malbrunot, echoed that, telling AFP from her home in Lyon that "this is the most beautiful Christmas present ever."

Chesnot, 37, and Malbrunot, 41 -- the longest-held Western hostages in Iraq -- were seized on a road south of Baghdad on August 20.

Several other hostages taken during the Iraqi insurgency have been killed by their captors.

A French foreign ministry spokesman, Herve Ladsous, said: "They have been freed. They have been handed over to French authorities. They will return (to Paris) Wednesday."

Geiselnahme Plakaten von franzöischen Journalisten in Paris

Portraits of French journalists Christian Chesnot, left, and Georges Malbrunot, are displayed on the main facade of the Paris City Hall

The French government had repeatedly said it was trying to negotiate their release with "discretion" after a failed unofficial bid by a French MP in September came up empty-handed. French officials said they had contact with the Islamic Army in Iraq, but did not say if it was direct or indirect.

Reasons for liberation

According to a statement by the Islamic Army in Iraq quoted by Al-Jazeera, the pair were freed "because they were proven not to spy for US forces, in response to appeals and demands from Islamic institutions and bodies, and in appreciation of the French government's stand on the Iraq issue and the two journalists' stand on the Palestinian cause."

Raffarin, who had interrupted a senate debate to announce the reporters' liberation, said "our joy will be complete when they are safely on national soil." The lower house of parliament, in a separate session, greeted the news with applause.

Margaret Hassan ermordet in Irak

Margaret Hassan

Hostage-taking has become common in Iraq, where chaos and bloodshed have taken hold despite efforts by a US-led military coalition to impose security. Foreigners are particularly targeted, and several, including an aid worker with British and Iraqi nationality, Margaret Hassan (photo9, have been murdered by their captors.

Several insurgency groups are believed to be involved in abductions, ranging from religious extremists to well-financed guerrillas. The Islamic Army in Iraq is thought to belong in the latter category, though its only demand relating to the French hostages was that Paris repeal a law banning girls from wearing Islamic headscarves in French state schools.

The French government refused, and that law came into effect in September.

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