PARIS – France frantically called on Arab leaders and Muslim religious leaders Wednesday to help save two journalists kidnapped in Iraq, setting in motion a swell of solidarity unseen in previous hostage dramas.
Authorities used a battery of tactics, issuing appeals on the home front and mustering support from Muslims around the world in search of a path to the shadowy Islamic Army of Iraq (search), the group that claims to be holding the two and has demanded France abolish its ban on Muslim head scarves in public schools.
Gen. Philippe Rondot, a Middle East specialist who helped in the capture of the Venezuelan-born terrorist known as Carlos the Jackal a decade ago, also was in Iraq with a team of secret agents seeking contacts with the captors, the newspaper Le Monde and RTL radio reported separately Tuesday. Defense Ministry spokesman Jean-Francois Bureau neither confirmed nor denied the reports.
Foreign Minister Michel Barnier headed to Qatar on Wednesday, the latest stop in a Mideast tour to try to save the journalists. A delegation of French Muslim officials was to head to Iraq as the chorus of voices calling for the release of the journalists multiplied. The kidnappers, meanwhile, set a new deadline, although there were conflicting accounts about whether it was Tuesday or Wednesday.
Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi (search) said kidnapping foreigners in Iraq is "terrorism." Pope John Paul II appealed for the release of the journalists and condemned this week's killing of 12 Nepalese workers by militants in Iraq.
Christian Chesnot, of Radio France International, and Georges Malbrunot, reporting for the daily Le Figaro, disappeared Aug. 19 on their way from Baghdad to the southern city of Najaf. Their Syrian chauffeur also vanished.
France has refused to meet the captors' demand to scrap a law banning Muslim head scarves (search) that takes effect in public schools on Thursday, start of the new scholastic year.
Al-Jazeera had reported that the group had extended its deadline by 24 hours until Tuesday.
But Arab League spokesman Hossam Zaki said the report was wrong and the actual deadline was Wednesday.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who has said it was his appeal that resulted in an extension from the group of kidnappers, said he expected "positive developments." However, Education Minister Francois Fillon told RMC-Info radio, that France "has no information that would allow us to be either optimistic or to fear the worst."
France has no troops in Iraq and gained points with Arabs for leading the opposition to last year's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Fewer than 100 French citizens are in Iraq, mostly journalists, aid workers and employees of private companies; nearly all are in Baghdad, according to the French government
Muslims have united to free the French hostages — with diverse groups ranging from the militant Islamic Hamas, which claimed responsibility for deadly twin blasts in Israel on Tuesday, to Sunni and Shiite Iraqi religious leaders in Iraq issuing calls on behalf of the French hostages.
Such shows of support have not been seen previously even though more than 100 hostages have been seized in recent months in Iraq.
Separately, Rana Abu-Zaineh, a spokeswoman for Kuwait and Gulf Link Transport Co., said seven employees who had been kidnapped in Iraq were free and headed to Kuwait.
"They are all fine, in good health. This is what we heard," Abu-Zaineh told The Associated Press. She gave no details about the circumstances of the release.
The three Kenyans, three Indians and one Egyptian were abducted July 21. The kidnappers had repeatedly changed their demands and extended deadlines set for killing the seven.
Abu-Zaineh had said Friday her company would stop work in Iraq.
French Muslims also disavowed captors' demands that France abandon the contentious law targeting head scarves, saying it was actually hurting their cause.
The captors must "end this terrible trial and act in conformity with the values of Islam," Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said Tuesday at a gathering at the Great Mosque of Paris, which he also heads.
The law that bans all conspicuous religious signs and apparel from public schools, including the Jewish skull cap and large Christian crosses. The law, however, was clearly designed to keep head scarves out of public classrooms in an effort to halt a rise in Muslim fundamentalism and preserve secularism, a fundamental value of modern-day France.