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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

French Journalists Held in Iraq

CAIRO, Egypt -- Islamic militants released a brief tape showing two French journalists kidnapped recently in Iraq and said they were holding the men to protest a French law banning headscarves in schools, according to footage aired by an Arab TV station.

The station, Al-Jazeera, said Saturday that the group gave the French government 48 hours to overturn the law but mentioned no ultimatum.

Christian Chesnot, of Radio France-Internationale, and Georges Malbrunot, of the newspaper Le Figaro and RTL radio, have not been in touch with their employers since Aug. 19, the French Foreign Ministry said last week.

Al-Jazeera's anchorman said the group described the French law banning religious apparel in public schools as "an aggression on the Islamic religion and personal freedoms."

The tape, lasting 3-4 seconds, showed the men separately, each standing in front of a black background emblazoned in red with the group's name, the Islamic Army in Iraq, in Arabic. The tape did not give the hostages' names, but their employers in France later identified them.

Chesnot appeared first, saying in poor Arabic that "we are being held by the Islamic Army in Iraq."

The tape then showed Malbrunot. "First of all, I want to tell my family that all is well and we are being treated well," he said in French just before the tape cut off.

The French Foreign Ministry issued a brief statement calling for the journalists' release. "The services of the French Embassy in Baghdad, like the French authorities, are mobilized more than ever. Once again, we call for the liberation of the two French journalists."

Sheik Abdulsattar Abduljawad, from the Association of Muslim Scholars, an influential Sunni Muslim group believed to have links to insurgents, also called for their release -- and for concessions by the French government.

The French law, which takes effect Wednesday, forbids public school students from wearing religious apparel and "conspicuous" signs showing their religious affiliation. That includes Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

On Tuesday, Al-Jazeera broadcast a videotape purportedly released by the same group showing abducted freelance journalist Enzo Baldoni, 56. Two days later, the station received another video that showed Baldoni's killing. A senior Al-Jazeera editor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the latest video was similar in form to the Baldoni tape aired Tuesday. Both tapes showed the hostages standing in front of a black background with red Arabic script in the background.

Philippe Necand, deputy chief editor at RTL, noted that the name of the group cited by Al-Jazeera is similar to the group that supposedly killed the Italian reporter.

 A team of Iraqi ministers visited battle-scarred Najaf on Saturday and discussed plans for rebuilding the holy city after three weeks of fighting that killed hundreds and drove oil prices to record highs, Reuters reported.

The five ministers drove through a shattered urban landscape, inspected the city's Imam Ali shrine and held talks with Iraq's most revered Shiite leader, Ayatollah Ali Hussein al-Sistani, who brokered a deal to end the clashes.

Fighting between the al-Mahdi Army militia of rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who had been holed up in the shrine during their uprising, and U.S. and Iraqi forces ended Thursday when Sistani returned to Najaf after medical treatment in London.