Freed French Reporters Arrive Home

Two French journalists freed from captivity in Iraq arrived home Wednesday to a tearful welcome from their families, ending a four-month drama that had gripped this country, which had opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Clean-shaven and wide-eyed, Christian Chesnot (search) and Georges Malbrunot (search) walked off the plane at Villacoublay military airport outside Paris, through a chilly evening rain and into the arms of sobbing family members waiting on the tarmac.

President Jacques Chirac (search) and several top Cabinet members personally greeted the two reporters.

"We lived a difficult experience," Malbrunot, 41, of the daily Le Figaro, told a mob of reporters on the tarmac. "Sometimes very difficult."

"We never lost hope. We trusted the efforts of the French authorities," he said.

Chesnot, 38, of Radio France Internationale, said the two were not mistreated.

Chesnot and Malbrunot disappeared Aug. 20 along with their Syrian driver as they headed to the city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. The driver, Mohammed al-Joundi, was freed in November and is now in France.

The reporters, who were released Tuesday, had been held by a group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq (search), which has killed hostages in the past. The group said in a statement to Al-Jazeera television that it freed them after it was proven they were not U.S. spies and because of pleas made by Muslim groups and the French government's stance toward Iraq.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the U.S. government was "very pleased" with their liberation.

The release was negotiated through intermediaries and no ransom was paid, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told politicians, said centrist leader Francois Bayrou, who attended the meeting. "No concessions" were made, Raffarin told parliament.

The journalists were among more than 170 foreigners kidnapped in Iraq. More than 30 have been slain.

The French pair were reported in good health, treated "reasonably well" during their captivity, said Jean-Paul Cluzel, chief of Radio France, Chesnot's boss.

From Baghdad, Chesnot and Malbrunot were flown to the Cypriot town of Paphos, landing at a military airport where they were met by French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier for the flight back to Paris.

Chirac, in a brief address after the pair left Baghdad, expressed "personal joy and that of all French to know that they are finally free and soon home with us." The president cut short his Christmas holiday in Morocco after news broke Tuesday of their release.

Chirac said France opposes "all forms of terrorism" and that the reporters were freed by the government's "responsible and tenacious action" as well as national solidarity that surrounded the hostage crisis.

France's Muslim community lined up behind the government's efforts to win the men's freedom, with three French Muslim leaders traveling to Baghdad in September.

Questions about how Paris tried to secure their release have been raised sporadically, although French media largely avoided such prickly issues so as not to compromise the hostages' safety. Authorities have spoken often about their "discreet" efforts to win the hostages' freedom, but never hinted at what was being done.

With the men's release, a multitude of theories about how, and why, they were freed came forth — pointing to the U.S. offensive against the insurgent stronghold Fallujah, French opposition to the war and behind-the-scenes government efforts.

The newspaper Le Monde, quoting a source in the DGSE spy agency involved in the case, said the hostages were held "nearly to the end" in Fallujah and the U.S. assault there "contributed to the denouement ... for the simple reason that the kidnappers had lost their sanctuary."

The head of state-run Radio France, Chesnot's employer, Jean-Paul Cluzel, said the government had "indirect contacts" with the kidnappers via another group. Contacts were accelerated Friday, he said.

Le Figaro said it was Arab mobilization that brought their freedom.

"France played its influence in the Arab world and the prestige it won by opposing the United States' policy in Iraq," the paper said.

However, analyst Francois Gere said the hostages were released because they were journalists — not because they were French.

"Their status as members of the press certainly had an impact — much more important than their nationality," Gere, who heads the French Institute of Strategic Analysis (search), said by telephone.