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JUBILANT HOMECOMING

Freed journalists, greeted in Paris, describe their ordeal

PARIS -- Two French journalists released by militants in Iraq returned to a jubilant France yesterday and described a four-month ordeal during which masked gunmen shuttled them among five hide-outs and interrogated them at length as combat thundered nearby.

During a brief news conference at an air base near Paris, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot said their captors generally treated them well, though there were periods of fear and uncertainty.

Like the French government, the two journalists said they were caught off-guard by their release Tuesday, which came about after the militants transported them to a hastily arranged rendezvous in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, with French intelligence agents.

''It was a bit unexpected," said Malbrunot, 41. ''Because we had thought it would be a somewhat more organized release. . . .When I got out of the trunk of a Mercedes and saw the French flag three yards away from me, I thought, it seems like the end."

Cleanshaven and smiling wearily, Chesnot and Malbrunot descended from a French military intelligence plane and were embraced by tearful relatives on a rainy runway at the Villacoublay military air base outside Paris.

A beaming President Jacques Chirac also celebrated the still-mysterious ending of a drama that strained France's relationship with Baghdad's pro-US government and shattered illusions that the French were shielded from anti-Western violence in Iraq.

The accounts of the former hostages and Chirac's government did not answer some lingering questions that distinguish this case from most of the high-profile abductions of foreigners in Iraq.

Although most kidnappings have ended within weeks with the release or slaying of hostages, the journalists' captivity lasted four months. The captors made a single, and unusual, public demand: that France drop a law banning religious symbols such as Islamic head scarves in public schools. Most other militants have focused their demands on Iraqi issues, threatening to kill hostages unless companies or countries pulled out of the Persian Gulf nation.

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and other ministers insisted yesterday that, contrary to widespread speculation, no ransom was paid for the release of Malbrunot, a correspondent for Le Figaro newspaper, and Chesnot, a reporter for Radio France International.

After Raffarin briefed legislators yesterday morning, Francois Bayrou, a leader of the ruling center-right coalition, hinted that aspects of the resolution had not been made public.

''I make a distinction between what a prime minister can say and what he is required to keep discreet or secret," Bayrou said.

But in an interview last evening, Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said that the government did not provide money or other compensation to the captors, who belong to a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq. In addition, she told the France 2 television channel, authorities were still trying to determine the reason for the release.

The arduous communications were conducted through four networks of intermediaries, never directly with the captors, Alliot-Marie said. The liberation materialized abruptly after intermediaries received encouraging signs in recent days, she said.

After France refused in September to rescind its recently adopted head-scarf ban, the militants made no further demands, she said.

''They never asked for a ransom," the defense minister said. ''That's why we were a bit concerned. There weren't any other demands."

The fact that Malbrunot and Chesnot were from a country that led opposition to the war in Iraq certainly seemed to have helped their cause. The two men had covered Middle Eastern hotspots for years. They used their knowledge of Arabic language and culture to try to win over the militants.

''We quickly played the card of being French journalists," Malbrunot said. ''France doesn't have troops, doesn't have entrepreneurs in Iraq. France was against the war. France has a rather tough position against the occupation."

In a communique Tuesday, the Islamic Army in Iraq cited France's Middle East policies as a reason for the release. But that did not explain why the captivity lasted so long or how it ended.

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