PARIS – A journalist for French daily Liberation and her Iraqi interpreter have gone missing from Baghdad, the newspaper and officials said just weeks after two other French reporters were freed following four months as hostages.
Liberation said Thursday it has not heard from Florence Aubenas (search), who usually checks in at least twice a day, for over 24 hours. French, Iraqi and U.S. authorities have been alerted, the newspaper said. French authorities in Iraq are searching hospitals and elsewhere, officials said.
"We're devastated," said Francois Sergent, head of the daily's foreign service.
He said they were clinging to the hope that she may have been detained by U.S. or Iraqi forces.
"We are waiting, with a little hope," he said.
Aubenas, 43, and her interpreter Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi "haven't been seen since they left their hotel in Baghdad Wednesday morning," Liberation said on its Web site.
The Foreign Ministry said French authorities in Baghdad and in Paris have made "all efforts" to find them since Liberation gave word they were missing.
When Aubenas did not check in Wednesday, "we called the hotel when we started to worry," said Sergent. Staff there told them they saw the two leave, he said. Calls to their mobile phones are not going through, he added.
Her disappearance comes less than three weeks after reporters Georges Malbrunot (search) and Christian Chesnot (search) were freed following four months in the hands of militants calling themselves the Islamic Army in Iraq.
They were flown home to a hero's welcome Dec. 22. They said part of their survival strategy was to dissociate themselves from the United States, and repeatedly remind their captors that they were French and that France opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Aubenas, who also is French, has worked for Liberation since 1986 and has covered Kosovo, Algeria, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. She had been in Baghdad since Dec. 16 — before Malbrunot and Chesnot were freed — on what was her second trip to Iraq, said Sergent.
"She is tough and very experienced," he said.
While maintaining a presence in Baghdad, Liberation's reporters no longer travel outside of the Iraqi capital because of attacks and the risk of kidnappings, he added.
Aubenas was working on stories about women candidates in Iraq's Jan. 30 elections and was seeking to meet refugees from Fallujah, the main guerrilla stronghold that U.S.-Iraqi forces invaded in November, said Liberation's chairman, Serge July.
Although Iraq is dangerous for reporters, "We believe that there is an electoral process underway and that it is difficult not to cover it," he told LCI television.
The Foreign Ministry reiterated that it advises against travel to Iraq, including for reporters.
Government officials speaking on condition of anonymity said Aubenas may have been kidnapped, wounded, killed or arrested in error by U.S. or Iraqi forces.
Al-Saadi has been working with Liberation's reporters for more than two years. He called his wife late Wednesday morning but since then "we have had no news," said July.
"Naturally, I'm worried," he said. "According to our security norms, never — barring absolutely exceptional circumstances — does someone not give word."