Kidnappers Issue Statement Praising France

Kidnappers of two French journalists in Iraq praised France's (search) "positive steps toward the Iraqi people" Tuesday, a sign that the hostage-takers may be softening their position.

In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press in Cairo (search) and also posted on a discussion board of the Islamic Army in Iraq, the group said it hoped "this is a beginning for a new era of understanding our issues and respect of our constants."

However, the statement did not refer to the French captives, journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot.

The group, which claimed the kidnapping of the Frenchman in previous statements, did not elaborate on the "positive steps" it said France has taken.

On Monday, French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said that an international conference on Iraq proposed by the United States should consider the question of a U.S. troop withdrawal from that country.

The militant group in a lengthy statement earlier this month called France "one of God's obvious enemies."

Chesnot, Malbrunot and their Syrian driver, Mohamed al-Joundi, disappeared Aug. 21 while traveling to the southern Iraqi city of Najaf (search). Militants from the Islamic Army in Iraq claimed responsibility, demanding that France revoke a new law banning Islamic head scarves from state schools. The law went into effect as planned with the new school year this month.

Earlier Tuesday, a man identified as a French negotiator told the Al-Arabiya television network that he met with the captive journalists and secured a promise for their release. He said the two were in good health.

But in Paris, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman denied any knowledge of a deal to free the journalists.

"We do not have any knowledge of the accord mentioned on al-Arabiya," the spokesman said on condition of anonymity.