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Militants threaten to kill Turk hostage

Warn driver's firm to leave Iraq

CAIRO -- Iraqi militants threatened to behead a Turkish truck driver if his company and the Kuwaiti contractor it works for did not stop their operations in Iraq within 48 hours, according to a videotape aired on Arab television yesterday.

In a development concerning other hostages, France's foreign minister, Michel Barnier, headed home from the Middle East without winning the release of two French reporters held in Iraq. But he said that they were thought to be alive and that efforts to free them would continue.

''According to the information we have at this moment, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot are in good health and being correctly treated," Barnier said in a statement. ''We are continuing our efforts with determination and with all the precautions necessary to obtain their release and that of their chauffeur, Mohammed al-Joundi."

The video aired yesterday on the Al-Arabiya television channel was reported to have come from a group calling itself the Islamic Resistance Movement -- Al-Noaman Brigades, hitherto not known to officials and news media.

It showed a bearded man, purported to be the Turkish driver, sitting in front of a black banner bearing the group's name in gold Arabic characters.

It was not possible to verify the tape's authenticity.

''We demand that the two companies stop these acts" of transporting supplies to US-led forces. Those acts ''make it necessary for those carrying them out to be killed," said a statement read by a person who was not shown during the tape.

''We warn all Turkish companies cooperating with occupation forces to exit immediately or the head of the driver will be severed if these companies don't comply within two days from the issuing of this statement," the reader said.

The voice heard on the tape mentioned the names of the purported hostage, his Turkish truck-driving firm, and the Kuwaiti company. The tape also showed what seemed to be a Turkish passport bearing the hostage's photograph and a residency permit issued in Kuwait.

Al-Arabiya's newsreader said the hostage had called on Turkish drivers not to cooperate with US forces.

In a separate kidnapping case last week, a tape showing three Turkish hostages being killed was sent to the Al-Jazeera television network from the Tawhid and Jihad militant group, which is linked to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian thought to be responsible for bombings, kidnappings, and other attacks in Iraq.

Militants waging a violent 16-month insurgency in Iraq have increasingly turned to kidnapping foreigners to try to drive out coalition forces and contractors.

Malbrunot, who reports for the daily newspaper Le Figaro, and Chesnot, who works for Radio France, were last heard from on Aug. 19 before they set off for the southern Iraqi city of Najaf. Their Syrian driver also vanished.

France, which opposed the US-led war, has teams of diplomats in Amman, Jordan, as well as in Baghdad and Syria, working to free the men. Barnier planned to report to President Jacques Chirac today, a week after Chirac dispatched him to the Middle East.

Barnier gave no details of the efforts to resolve the crisis but said his trip resulted in ''numerous contacts with political and religious personalities . . . testifying to the solidarity of the Arab and Muslim worlds" with France's cause.

Militants who said they were holding the men demanded that France revoke a law banning pupils from wearing Islamic head scarves in state schools.

The government held firm, implementing the law as planned when the school year started Thursday.

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