French Hostages Handed to Opposition Group

Paris (search) newspaper editor said Thursday that two French journalists held by kidnappers were turned over to an Iraqi opposition group, raising hopes that they could soon be released. A separate militant group in Iraq said it had killed three Turkish captives.

The kidnappers delivered the pair to a Sunni Muslim group, Jean de Belot, managing editor of Le Figaro newspaper, said on France-Info radio.

He said the opposition group favors the release of the hostages, but he stressed the status of the two Frenchmen wasn't completely clear.

"We must be prudent in this kind of mixed-up situation because we know well that until the good news arrives, we can't let ourselves be absolutely reassured," he said.

The reports came during a day of frantic activity to win the releases — efforts that were spurred on by the passage of a deadline for the French government to revoke a ban on the wearing of Muslim headscarves in public schools that went into effect Thursday.

A militant group calling itself "The Islamic Army of Iraq" said it had kidnapped the reporters and demanded that France (search) lift its ban on Islamic headscarves (search) in public schools, but the government refused.

Charles Lambroschini, a deputy managing editor at Le Figaro, said the original kidnappers were fundamentalists and that they had handed the reporters to members of the Iraqi opposition "who favor negotiation."

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was cautiously optimistic about the journalists' safety.

"According to the indications which were given to us and we are studying at this moment with caution, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot are alive, in good health and are being well treated," he said at a news conference in Amman, Jordan.

Militants waging a violent 16-month insurgency in Iraq have increasingly turned to kidnapping foreigners here as part of an effort to drive out coalition forces and contractors. In the past week, militant have killed an Italian journalist and 12 Nepalese workers, while seven truckers from India, Kenya and Egypt were released after their employer paid a $500,000 ransom.

Malbrunot, 41, reports for the daily Le Figaro and Chesnot, 37, is with Radio France International.

Also Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that the Bush administration miscalculated the strength of the insurgency here, but said the United States would "not become faint of heart" in enforcing its Iraq policy.

"What we have to do is to defeat this insurgency," Powell said in an interview Wednesday with Panama's TVN Channel 2. A text was released Thursday by the State Department. "Let's remember who at is causing this trouble. It's not the United States. It's not the coalition forces that are there."

But he conceded that "it is clear we did not expect an insurgency that would be this strong."

The Defense Department announced this week that the death toll for U.S. military personnel in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was 975 and the number of wounded was approaching 7,000.

In the other kidnap case Thursday, pan-Arab television station Al-Jazeera reported that it had received a video from a militant group in Iraq linked to Al Qaeda showing the slaying of three Turkish hostages.

The station said it had a statement claiming responsibility from Tawhid and Jihad, a group linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant held responsible for a string of bombings, kidnappings and other attacks in Iraq.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry in Ankara and the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad both said they had no information on the fate of the men.

Al-Jazeera broadcast a segment of the video that showed the three Turkish men sitting on the floor with three masked men, two of them armed, standing behind them. It did not broadcast any footage showing the killings, nor did it say how the three were killed.

"The time of forgiveness has gone. You have nothing left but killing and beheading," said a brief printed statement in Arabic from the captors, which Al-Jazeera showed on its screen.

The video coincided with the discovery by Iraqi police of the bodies of two Turkish citizens and an unidentified man at a rural farm in northern Iraq. It could not immediately be confirmed whether the bodies belonged to the men in the video.

Meanwhile, Sheik Aws al-Khafaji, the head of al-Sadr's office in the southern city of Nasiriyah, said Muqtada al-Sadr decided to lead Friday prayers himself in Kufa — his first sermon since a peace deal was brokered to end tensions in Najaf and Kufa last week.

The rebel cleric was expected to announce "the mechanism of entering the political process" during in his sermon, al-Khafaji said.

In the journalist's kidnappings, French Muslim envoys had earlier expressed optimism the men would be freed after meeting with leaders of an influential Sunni clerical organization with alleged ties to insurgents at a Baghdad mosque.

"There are much more reasons to trust in a serene, very positive outcome of the situation rather than the contrary," Abdallah Zekri of the Paris Mosque said after the session.

Using France's formidable diplomatic clout in the region, President Jacques Chirac has made good on a pledge to spare no effort to save the lives of the journalists.

In Paris, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said he hoped the hostage drama would be resolved Friday, the Muslim holy day.

"It is great moment of coming together and of prayer and I want to believe that we can hope for a happy end," he said. "The signs that we have tonight are going in the right direction."

France has won massive support from leaders throughout the Arab world, cashing in on Paris' strong backing for the Palestinians and its anti-war stance in Iraq.

Despite opposition among France's sizable Muslim community, Paris' effort to rein in Islamic fundamentalism with the ban on Islamic head scarves in schools passed its first test Thursday, with 240 girls showing up for the first day of class with their heads covered — five times less than last year, the Education Ministry said

In other developments Thursday:

— Iraqi national guards killed seven militants south of Baghdad on Thursday in clashes that also left nine guardsmen injured, an Interior Ministry official said.

— Gunmen shot dead a police major in the southern city of Basra as he walked through a market in the city center, officials said.

— Two civilians were killed and another 12 injured by crossfire during clashes between insurgents and U.S. forces in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, police said.

— Two people were killed in a roadside bomb explosion about 45 miles southwest of the northern city of Kirkuk, police said.

— In downtown Baghdad, an insurgent threw a hand grenade at a passing police vehicle, injuring one officer and setting the car ablaze. U.S. troops quickly arrived to put out the fire and secure the area.