France Holds Talks to Free Hostages

France intensified efforts Tuesday to save two journalists held hostage in Iraq, convening crisis talks in Paris and around the Arab world as a 24-hour execution deadline set by militants neared.

French President Jacques Chirac (search) said every effort was being made to free the journalists — although his government has steadfastly refused to bow to kidnappers' demands that a new law banning Islamic head scarves (search) in French public schools be revoked.

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier launched a second day of emergency diplomacy in the Middle East, pleading for — and winning — crucial support from Arab governments and powerful Muslim groups, which praised France for its anti-war stance on Iraq (search).

"Because of France's distinguished position in rejecting the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq, we appeal to the people who kidnapped the journalists to spare their lives," said the Islamic Action Front, Jordan's largest opposition group.

The French government's mission to free the reporters took on new urgency with reports Tuesday that 12 Nepalese hostages had been executed in Iraq. But hopes were steadily rising regarding the fate of Christian Chesnot (search) and Georges Malbrunot (search), the journalists who disappeared Aug. 19 while traveling to the southern city of Najaf.

The official Jordanian news agency, Petra, reported from Iraq that it expected the release of the journalists "within the next few hours." The agency said its report was based on "well-informed" sources.

The journalists, apparently under duress, were shown on a video released by Al-Jazeera television late Monday urging Chirac to meet militants' demands to rescind a ban on Islamic head scarves that takes effect when classes resume Thursday. France has ruled out repealing the law.

Condemnation of the kidnapping and support for France poured in from around Europe and the Middle East, notably from Baghdad.

Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni group believed to have links to insurgents, made a televised appeal to the group, saying the kidnapping was not the correct way to fight the French law.

When asked about Arab television reports that the two men would soon be released, al-Faidi said: "We have no information so far on their fate, and we have no direct contact with the kidnappers."

The journalists were believed to be held by the Islamic Army of Iraq, thought to be a Sunni group. Militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also called for the reporters to be set free.

"We believe such acts defame Islam and Muslims in general," Ali al-Yasiri, an al-Sadr representative in Baghdad, said Tuesday. "To fight in a battlefield is OK, but to kill a civilian or journalist is blasphemy."

Al-Sadr commands strong support among poor Iraqi Shiites and helped broker the Aug. 22 release of U.S. journalist Micah Garen after nine days in the hands of Shiite militiamen. But he is thought to have little influence among extremist Sunnis.

The European Parliament also called for the immediate release of the two Frenchmen and more than 160 EU lawmakers had signed a petition by Tuesday morning demanding their freedom.

"Whatever its origin, terrorism has but one goal; to kill freedom of expression and thought. Democrats around the world have to fight this," EU assembly President Josep Borrell said in a statement.

In a video broadcast Saturday, the group gave the French government 48 hours to overturn the ban. Al-Jazeera on Monday said the group had extended its deadline by 24 hours, to late Tuesday.

A militant group with a similar name was believed to have killed an Italian freelance journalist last week after Italy's government rejected a demand that it withdraw its 3,000 soldiers in Iraq.

The hostage crisis and terrorism topped talks between the leaders of France, Germany and Russia at a pre-planned summit at Vladimir Putin's Black Sea resort in Sochi.

At a press conference, Chirac said he told his counterparts that France was determined to see the reporters freed. "Everything will be done to obtain their liberation."

Jordan's Abdullah and Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said Amman was using the contacts developed in freeing its own kidnapped citizens to try to help the French journalists. At least nine Jordanian hostages have been freed in Iraq in the last two weeks.

In Paris, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin held an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the crisis. Ministers left the meeting without commenting.

The demand to end the head scarf ban was the first time hostage-takers sought to reverse a nation's domestic law. The kidnapping proved false the notion that France's opposition to the Iraq war and its generally pro-Arab policies may to some extent have inoculated it from Islamic terrorism.