French Hostages May Go Free Soon

An unofficial French negotiator told a radio station Friday that two journalists held for more than a month in Iraq could be released within hours.

Philippe Brett told Europe-1 radio he was with the two Frenchmen and negotiations were being finalized for their release. The journalists, Christian Chesnot (search), 37, and George Malbrunot (search), 41, and their Syrian driver disappeared Aug. 20 while apparently driving toward Najaf.

The Islamic Army (search) in Iraq claims responsibility, demanding that France revoke a new law banning Islamic head scarves from state schools. The law went into effect as planned.

"I think within 10 hours I can speak with great pleasure," Brett told Europe-1 radio. "I don't want to compromise this operation, which is already sufficiently complicated."

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous said he could not comment on the report.

Brett is not an official negotiator for the French government. He has worked in Iraq for years, including when the country was under U.N. sanctions, mainly through the French Office for Development of Industry and Culture (search), which he helped found.

That organization worked for the lifting of those sanctions, which were imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990.

Brett said Wednesday he met with the French captives and had been promised they would be released. The accord includes the captors' broadcasting an audiotape in which they announce the men's imminent release, he said, adding that the deal does not involve a ransom.

"We were able to reach this agreement without paying any money," Brett told Al-Arabiya television network Wednesday.

Brett traveled Thursday to the Syrian capital of Damascus. He had been in Amman, Jordan.

Lawmaker Didier Julia, of President Jacques Chirac's (search) governing party, referred to Brett earlier this week as an associate. Julia currently is in Damascus, Syria, and is in contact with the French Embassy, Ladsous said.

Brett also traveled to the Syrian capital Thursday. He had been in Amman, Jordan.

France said Thursday it had sent the Foreign Ministry envoy, Jean-Pierre Lafon, to Amman.

Earlier this week, the Foreign Ministry said it had no knowledge of a deal to free the journalists and their Syrian driver.

According to the newspaper Le Monde, Brett is close to the extreme right and once served as driver and body guard for Bruno Gollnisch, a leading figure in France's far-right National Front party.