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Hostages plead: Lift headscarf ban

Captors extend deadline by 24 hours
Veiled women shout slogans during a demonstration against the headscarf ban in Paris.
Should the French government revoke a law banning Muslim headscarves in public schools in an attempt to secure the release of hostages in Iraq?
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CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- Two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq have pleaded for Paris to meet their captors' demands and reverse a ban on Muslim headscarves for girls in public schools.

The Arabic-language news network Al-Jazeera aired a videotaped statement late Monday from Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot.

"We ask the French government to show their good intentions towards the Arab and Islamic world and abolish the headscarf law, which is an unjust and unfair law," Chesnot said.

"We ask the French people to demonstrate against this law and to ask the French government to reverse it before we pay our lives as a price for it. We don't have much time. It could be a matter of minutes."

Chesnot and Malbrunot are being held by a group that calls itself the Islamic Army in Iraq -- the same group that says it killed an Italian journalist after Italy refused to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

Al-Jazeera said the group is giving the government of French President Jacques Chirac an additional 24 hours to respond to meet its demand.

On Saturday, the group had given the French government 48 hours to respond.

"We call on every French person and every person who values life to demonstrate against the headscarf law," Malbrunot said.

"Our lives are in danger, and I appeal to President Chirac to do something and abolish this law."

But earlier Monday, a government spokesman said France would not give in to calls to stay the ban on headscarves.

"The law will be applied," spokesman Jean-Francois Cope told Canal Plus television Monday.

The law that the Iraqi group opposes bans not only Muslim headscarves, but other religious symbols from public schools, including Jewish skullcaps and large crosses.

The measure goes into effect this week at the start of the new school year.

Chesnot, a reporter for Radio France International, and Malbrunot, of the French paper Le Figaro, were reported missing on August 21 after leaving for Najaf from Baghdad.

Al-Jazeera reported the men were captives of the same group that claimed to have kidnapped an Italian journalist and killed him after Italy refused to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

Their latest statement was released after French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier met with Egyptian government officials and Arab leaders in hopes of finding some way to secure the captives' freedom.

Barnier was scheduled to meet Tuesday with Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muashar in Amman and also may meet with King Abdullah II.

"We have had no further contact -- again, no contact -- but we are making all efforts to attain their immediate freedom," Barnier said after a meeting with Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League.

"Our embassy in Baghdad knows the region has sent representatives to the region to explore all routes, gather all information possible and make all contacts possible to secure their release, we have experience in these matters, it requires discretion, basically we are seeking a guarantee of their security," he said.

On Sunday, French officials from President Chirac on down condemned the abduction.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told reporters "the whole nation is united" over the case.

Not only were the two mens' lives at stake, he said, but so were "freedom of expression and the values of the republic."

"Everything, has been done to obtain their release. The government is totally mobilized," he said.

And Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin demanded the group release their captives immediately.

"France is the country of the French revolution, of human rights," de Villepin said.

Muslim leaders back France

French Muslim leaders said they stand with de Villepin.

"Today we live a sad moment for 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."

And Dalil Boubaker, president of the French Muslim Council, said 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.

Meanwhile, the Spanish government Monday expressed its "support and solidarity" for the French journalists and for the French government in a phone call from Spanish Interior Minister Jose Antonio Alonso to de Villepin, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Spain called for the release of the two French journalists as soon as possible and offered any help it could to resolve the situation in Spain's dual capacity as France's southern neighbor and as a fellow member of the European Union, the statement said.

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