The two French journalists held by Islamist militants in Iraq are safe and could be freed at any time, the most influential Sunni Muslim organisation in Baghdad said yesterday. Sheikh Abdel Salam al-Kobeissi, of the Committee of Ulema, was quoted by French radio as saying that Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro and Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale were "out of danger" and that their liberation was "now just a question of time". The news followed earlier doubts about which radical group was now holding the pair. The managing editor of Le Figaro, Jean de Belot, said on Thursday night that the men had been handed over to a guerrilla group known to favour freeing them. However, an Islamist website published what it claimed was a statement from the Islamic Army in Iraq, the pair's original captors, saying it was still holding them and would announce its decision on their fate "soon". But no trace of the statement could be found anywhere else, and its authenticity remained in doubt. The government has rejected the hostage-takers' demand that it withdraw a new law banning all conspicuous symbols of religious faith, including Muslim headscarves, from state schools. The law came into effect without major incident on Thursday. France's Muslim community shared the country's outrage at the kidnappings, and religious leaders urged calm and an avoidance of all confrontation. French diplomats also said yesterday that, in the light of the still unresolved crisis, the Iraqi interim president, Ghazi al-Yawer, had postponed a trip to Paris that was due to have begun next week, informs Guardian Unlimited. According to Reuters, two French hostages held in Iraq are being well treated but there are hurdles to overcome to secure their release. "We know they are being well treated. Beyond that, I hope we remain prudent and that everyone, everywhere and especially here, keeps their composure," Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said on France 2 television from Amman on Friday. Earlier, hopes rose for the quick release of journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, seized on August 20, with an Iraqi negotiator and the Arab League both expressing optimism they would be freed soon. French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin expressed "prudence but confidence" about the prospects of securing their release. "We have positive information but there are hurdles to overcome," he said in La Chapelle-Montreuil, in western France. In Iraq, Sheikh Hisham Duleimi, who is involved in negotiations to free the men, said there were "excellent signs" they would be freed soon. Hopes for the quick release of two French hostages in Iraq rose Friday, with an Iraqi negotiator saying there were "excellent signs" they would be freed soon. On the ground, Iraqi police sealed off the shrine towns of Najaf and Kufa Friday, a week after Shiite radical Moqtada al-Sadr ended his bloody revolt against US troops. "We have reached positive, tangible results regarding the release of the two French journalists," Sheikh Hisham Duleimi said in Iraq. Duleimi said journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, seized on Aug. 20, were in good health but did not say whether he was in direct contact with the kidnappers. The comments by Duleimi, who has been involved in negotiations that have secured the release of other foreigners held by insurgents in Iraq, were the latest sign of mounting optimism over the hostages' fate. A delegation from the French Council of the Muslim Faith, which went to Baghdad to try to save the reporters, said they hoped the men would be freed on Friday, publishes Daily Star.
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