PARIS -- Joy swept France with the release yesterday of two French reporters held hostage in Iraq for four months. The government said Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot should be home for Christmas.
France's upper house of parliament erupted with applause when Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told the senators the militant Islamic Army in Iraq had freed the reporters.
''It's the best Christmas present we could get," said Chesnot's brother, Thierry, adding that the two men were in good health.
''Until now, our life was murky. I didn't stop crying -- and my husband, too," Malbrunot's mother, Andree, said. ''I am really happy."
Chesnot, 38, who works for Radio France Internationale, and Malbrunot, 41, a correspondent for the daily Le Figaro, were handed over to French authorities in Baghdad and were expected back in France today, the French Foreign Ministry said.
President Jacques Chirac was rushing back from vacation in Morocco and planned to make an address today after the reporters are flown out of the Iraqi capital, his office said.
The men and their Syrian driver were kidnapped Aug. 20 on the road from Baghdad to Najaf. The driver, Mohammed al-Joundi, was freed in November but said they had been separated for a month.
The Arab television station Al-Jazeera reported that it received a statement from the Islamic Army saying the reporters were freed after it was proven they were not US spies, because of pleas by Islamic groups, and because of the French government's stance toward Iraq.
France refused to join the US-led coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Intense negotiations by French diplomats and overwhelming support from the Arab world raised hopes after the men were taken captive that they would be quickly released.
France's Muslim community also lined up behind the government's efforts to win their freedom, with three French Muslim leaders traveling to Baghdad in September.
Their support came despite Muslim opposition to a law that banned Islamic head scarves in French public schools. The Islamic Army had demanded that the law be revoked, but it went into effect as planned in September.
''We did not succumb to blackmail. Regardless of political, philosophical, and religious convictions, there was a real coming together," said Socialist Party legislator Jean-Marc Ayrault.
But as the months dragged on, the government became increasingly tightlipped about its efforts to free the men, saying secrecy was essential. Even yesterday, officials would not give details about the men's release.
''After four months of waiting, with the highs and the lows, it's such a relief. We're even having trouble believing it. It came out of nowhere," Chesnot's sister, Anne-Marie, told LCI television.