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Hostage crisis unites France behind headscarf ban

Muslim groups urge release

PARIS -- French critics and defenders of a ban on Muslim headscarves in schools united in support of the law yesterday, pledging to stand firm against militants holding two French journalists hostage in Iraq who want the law revoked.

Thousands of people, many of them Muslims, took to the streets in France to call on hostage-takers to free the men.

Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said his community rejected the foreign interference into what it considered a strictly French issue.

"Some (Muslim) women say if the headscarf will be tainted with blood of victims, they don't want the headscarf," he said.

Fouad Alaoui, secretary-general of an Islamic group that had previously urged French schoolgirls to defy the ban, recommended that they refrain from openly flouting the law.

"This episode must not lead to a further radicalization of the situation in France," Alaoui from the Union of French Islamic Organisations told RTL radio.

On Saturday militants holding journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot gave France 48 hours to lift the ban. They did not specify what would happen if France did not comply but the group, Islamic Army in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the death of an Italian journalist last week.

Last night when the deadline was set to expire, the group told Al Jazeera television it would give France another 24 hours to meet its demands.

Al Jazeera also showed the two kidnapped journalists speaking to the camera, urging France to retract the ban, saying they might otherwise be killed.

France's Foreign Ministry had no comment on the video. But the government has said there was no question of the headscarf law being revoked.

France passed the law in March in reaction to the growing influence of Islamist activists and tensions between Muslim and Jewish youths in schools.

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