French Hostages Freed in Iraq

Two French reporters held hostage for four months in Iraq were released in Baghdad on Tuesday and should be home in time for Christmas, the government announced, bringing cheers across a nation that had anguished over their captivity.

"I have a profound joy in announcing to you that Christian Chesnot (search) and Georges Malbrunot (search) have just been freed by the Islamic Army," Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told the upper house of parliament, the Senate.

Senators erupted with applause and a standing ovation.

The hostages' fate had gripped France. Some newspapers carried daily columns counting their days of captivity. Celebrities like actresses Catherine Deneuve (search) and Juliette Binoche (search) delivered daily radio appeals to remind listeners about the men. Giant photos of them hung from Paris' City Hall.

The release was greeted with joy on the streets of Paris.

"It's great! I can't even imagine the joy for their families to have them back just before Christmas," said Marie Petitbois, a marketing assistant. "Four months is a long time to not have much news. It's great, a day that ends well."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said the reporters were expected back in France on Wednesday. They were handed over to French officials in the Iraqi capital, he said, but gave no details on how they were released.

Chesnot's brother, Thierry, said the reporters were in good health. "It's the best Christmas present we could get," he said.

Chesnot's sister, Anne-Marie, quivered with excitement in an interview with LCI television: "After four months of waiting, with the highs and the lows, it's such a relief. We're even having trouble believing it. It came out of nowhere."

Chesnot, 38, works for Radio France Internationale, and Malbrunot, 41, is a correspondent for the newspaper Le Figaro.

The two were abducted Aug. 20 along with their Syrian driver while driving to the holy city of Najaf. The driver, Mohammed al-Joundi, was freed in November.

The Islamic Army of Iraq claimed responsibility for the journalists' abduction and demanded that France revoke a law banning Islamic head scarves and other religious apparel from schools. The government refused.

After expressing initial hopes the men would be quickly released, French officials grew increasingly tightlipped about the hostages as the months dragged on. Officials repeatedly said they believed the reporters were alive, but would not discuss French efforts to free them.

"I thought we had sort of forgotten about them," said Patrice Bardbe, an art expert asked for his reaction to the release. "But I see that France must have found some very effective methods to get them freed."

"I'm humbled because they are two wonderful men," Bardbe added. "I'm very happy."

Raffarin, the prime minister, said the release was the "result of constant, difficult and discreet work." He praised "the courage of these two men who suffered these long months in difficult conditions."

The reporters were among more than 170 foreign hostages taken by groups in Iraq. More than 30 of the hostages have been killed.