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French bid to free abducted journalists

Militants call for Paris to revoke ban on headscarves in schools

French journalists Christian Chesnot, left, and Georges Malbrunot went missing August 21.
• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide

(CNN) -- French President Jacques Chirac dispatched his foreign minister to the Middle East on Sunday to try to secure the release of two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq.

The militants behind the kidnapping have called for France to overturn a law banning Muslim students from wearing headscarves in state schools.

The Arabic-language TV network Al-Jazeera broadcast videotape Saturday showing Radio France International's Christian Chesnot and Le Figaro newspaper's Georges Malbrunot, who were reported missing the morning of August 21.

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier "will immediately leave to the region in order to establish the necessary contacts and coordinate our efforts on the ground," Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin told reporters Sunday.

"Today, the whole nation is united because the life of two Frenchmen is at stake, as well as freedom of expression and the values of the republic."

He added, "From the first day, everything ... has been done to obtain their release. The government is totally mobilized."

According to Al-Jazeera, the kidnappers are part of the group Islamic Army in Iraq, the same group that claimed to have kidnapped an Italian journalist and killed him after Italy refused to withdraw its troops.

The group gave France 48 hours to respond to its demands.

Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said: "The French people as a whole, all origins and religions together, are together behind our compatriots Christian and Georges. Together we demand that they be set free."

French Muslim leaders joined de Villepin.

"Today we live a sad moment, all the Muslims of France, because he who touches a human life touches the life of humanity as a whole," said Fouad Alaoui, vice president of the Union of French Muslim Organizations.

"I make a call of the hostage-takers, in the name of Islam and God the gracious, not to betray the principles of Islam."

Dalil Boubaker, president of the French Muslim Council, said that the Muslim community was "solid in its compassion" for the journalists and their families.

"We want to express our solidarity, and the union of the French country -- Muslim or not Muslim -- and to take this opportunity to join ourselves to this call, in this demand to the hostage-takers, in the name of Islam, in the name of the most sacred, that human life is the most sacred gift from God, to spare the life of our compatriots," he said.

Turkish hostages freed

Meanwhile, two Turkish hostages held captive in Iraq were released Sunday "in excellent condition," a Turkish diplomat in Baghdad told CNN.

Both are electrical engineers who had been working on power lines in Iraq.

Ali Daskin and Abdullah Ozdemir were freed at about 4:30 p.m. (8:30 a.m. ET), and addressed reporters four hours later outside the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad.

The diplomat said that circumstances leading to the engineers' arrival at the embassy were not immediately clear. "The most important thing, is that they are free," the diplomat said.

Ozdemir said eight people had entered their hotel room early one morning "and tied us up, and blindfolded us both. They took us somewhere, we don't know where... They treated us well, they fed us."

Daskin said he was beat up during the kidnapping however. "I was hurt behind my head, on my cheek, on my lip," he said. "I thank everyone in Turkey -- we are free. We are returning to Turkey."

The companies they work for, Usluel and SA-RA, had agreed to pull out of Iraq in response to the captors' demands. They began Thursday pulling staff and equipment from Iraq, saying they wanted to save the hostages' lives.

The Islamic militants who held them had threatened to behead them.

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