PARIS – U.S. forces in Iraq (search) said Friday they are not holding a missing French reporter last seen leaving her Baghdad hotel two days ago, raising concern that she was kidnapped. France's president suggested it was irresponsible to dispatch journalists to Iraq.
President Jacques Chirac (search) said he was worried for veteran reporter Florence Aubenas of the daily Liberation (search) and France is "naturally mobilizing all means to obtain information and find her."
Speaking at his annual New Year's reception for media workers and bosses, Chirac also issued a stern reminder that French authorities "categorically advise against sending journalists to this country," where their safety "cannot be assured."
"It is a question of responsibility," he said. "If there were fewer journalists there, there would be fewer risks."
Chirac's outburst, a remarkable foray by a politician into the way reporters work, suggested exasperation that France may be facing a second hostage drama just weeks after two other French reporters were freed from four months of captivity in Iraq.
"You do not know of the size of the efforts and the overall cost for the nation," the French president said, apparently referring to the work it takes to get hostages released.
"I fully understand the demands of the profession, but there is a limit which is risking people's lives," he said. "It is not reasonable."
Patrick Sabatier, a deputy chief editor at Liberation, said it was still unclear what happened to Aubenas and her Iraqi translator, Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi, who were last seen Wednesday.
"There is absolutely no indication one way or another what the problem might be," Sabatier said in an Associated Press Television News interview. "Of course kidnapping, being what it is in Iraq, is a distinct possibility."
Sabatier said Liberation sends reporters to Iraq because it does not want to depend on U.S.-led forces or "the so-called resistance" for information.
"To be journalists means covering wars," he said. "We want to be able to report on the situation in Iraq by ourselves and that was the basis of our decision."
He also said reports that Aubenas disappeared on a dangerous road running north from Baghdad to Taji were unconfirmed. The U.S. military said it pursued reports that she disappeared on the Baghdad-Taji road and checked with American units to see if she had been detained there. The search was fruitless, U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said.
Liberation said Aubenas usually checks in at least twice a day.
Aubenas, 43, has worked for Liberation since 1986 and covered conflicts in Kosovo, Algeria, Rwanda, and Afghanistan. She has been in Baghdad since Dec. 16 -- days before kidnapped French reporters Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot were freed by militants calling themselves the Islamic Army in Iraq.
Malbrunot agreed that sending journalists to Iraq was ill-advised.
"It seems to me extremely, extremely risky, especially given the work conditions now: Not going out of a hotel room, is that really getting informed?" Malbrunot said. "Our kidnappers said it to us: 'Don't come back."'
He and Chesnot returned to France on Dec. 22.
Aubenas was researching stories about women candidates in Iraq's Jan. 30 elections and seeking to meet refugees from Fallujah, the guerrilla stronghold U.S.-Iraqi forces invaded in November, Liberation said.