Mon, Jan 03, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Reporters avoid macabre demise by being French

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

French journalist Georges Malbrunot, who was released just before Christmas after four months in captivity in Iraq, saw in the new year at his parents' home in the south of France with tears in his eyes and a sense of relief that he was not British.

"On Planet bin Laden, they look first at your nationality. Had we been British -- or from another coalition country -- we would have been decapitated within days," he said.

Malbrunot, 41, and Christian Chesnot, 37, were released by the Salafist Islamic Army on 22 December after 124 days of threats from their captors, false hopes of freedom, US shelling and secret negotiations -- but allegedly no ransom payment -- by the French government.

"We never saw the faces of our captors," said Malbrunot, who reports for the conservative Le Figaro. "They wore balaclavas. One day, one of them, who boasted that he had been trained in Afghanistan at one of `Sheikh Osama's' camps, told us not to be troubled by the balaclavas. `It means I am not going to kill you. If I was going to kill you, I would have bared my face to you right away,' he told us."

Malbrunot believes they weren't killed -- as numerous other hostages have been -- because they were French.

"Knowing the way the British authorities abandon their subjects when they are in trouble abroad, we were fortunate. We never doubted that everything was being done, albeit in secret, to secure our release," he said.

"It stirs you up to realize, in restrospect, you came very, very close to death. I cried the other day in Baghdad, when French diplomats gave us their summary of our 124 days in captivity. It included two 48-hour ultimatums on our lives we never knew about. It is moving to realize the extent to which the whole of France, its government, its Muslims, and probably many influential people in the Arab world rallied to our cause."

Malbrunot and Chesnot -- who reports for Radio France Internationale -- were abducted with their driver on Aug. 20 when on the road from Baghdad to Najaf their car was cut off by two Mercedes.

Seven or eight armed men tore open the doors and blindfolded them.

The three men were held in a hut for a week, sleeping on the floor, using a hole as a toilet and being fed rice, dates, beans and bread. They saw other abductees, most of whom were later killed.

Fereydun Jahani, an Iranian consul, was to be released, but two Macedonians were beheaded after two months, as was a bodyguard for Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi.

"We heard them interrogate an Iraqi hostage working on an electricity plant. They divide hostages into two categories -- those who are to be executed and those worth entering into negotiations over. Our interrogator was known as Fatso; he introduced himself as the chief intelligence officer of the Islamic Army. He was a former intelligence agent for Saddam.

"Fatso's job was to grill us and put the evidence before a tribunal presided over by a sheikh. The tribunal apparently decided we were worth negotiating over, and on Sept. 2 Christian and I were moved to a `better place' -- a ground-floor room, about 45 minutes' drive from the farm." The driver was released.

"We had no knowledge of the Islamic Army before they captured us. But we developed a picture of an organization with money, contacts in Europe and a double agenda -- to fight the occupation and wage a jihad as preached by bin Laden.

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