A Syrian found handcuffed in Fallujah and rescued by U.S. Marines was kidnapped with two French journalists in August and has told authorities he last saw the Frenchmen a month ago — the first confirmed word on the captives since they disappeared in August.
Marines sweeping through Fallujah as part of a major U.S. offensive against insurgents located Mohammed al-Joundi, the U.S. military said, but there was no sign of journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot.
A portrait of al-Joundi that had hung from the facade of Paris City Hall for nearly three months was taken down Friday. Portraits of Chesnot and Malbrunot remained.
“I hope it’s a good sign for the other two, Georges and Christian,” said al-Joundi’s brother-in-law Ali Merhebi, who lives in Paris. “I hope we can gather again tomorrow to take down the two other portraits.”
Contact with the kidnappers
Before the U.S. assault on Fallujah, France had found a channel for direct contacts with a group thought to have taken al-Joundi and the French reporters hostage, Merhebi said. He said he was informed of the contact last month by the French Foreign Ministry.
France-2 television, citing Malbrunot’s family, said a new videocassette shows the two reporters, looking thin and talking in Arabic and English. The family said it has had a copy of the cassette, which is dated Oct. 3, for two weeks, the report said. France-2 did not show the video.
The French Foreign Ministry would not confirm Merhebi’s account and refused to confirm or deny the existence of the video.
The Marines said the Syrian, who was found late Thursday, told them he was separated from the journalists a month ago. The exact location of the house where he was discovered was not disclosed.
The three — al-Joundi was the journalists’ driver — were abducted Aug. 20 while headed south from Baghdad to the Shiite holy city of Najaf. A militant group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq claimed responsibility and demanded France revoke a new law banning Islamic head scarves from state schools.
Release came before Fallujah assault
Al-Joundi said they were ambushed on the highway by men in two cars — a white Mercedes and a Korean-made vehicle, Marine Capt. Ed Bitanga said.
At one point, the Syrian was interrogated by his captors in a room where he saw a black flag with crossed swords, Bitanga said.
Although he was blindfolded at times, al-Joundi said he saw several other hostages, including two Czech nationals — one of whom was injured.
More than 170 foreigners have been taken hostage in Iraq, and at least 34 have been killed. Several groups have claimed responsibility, including the Islamic Army in Iraq and followers of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian with links to al-Qaida. U.S. military officials have said they believe al-Zarqawi likely fled Fallujah ahead of this week’s offensive on the city west of Baghdad.
The French government has made extensive efforts to free Chesnot, 37, who works for Radio France Internationale, and Malbrunot, 41, of the daily newspaper Le Figaro.
The Syrian told military officials he was released just ahead of the assault on Fallujah. Even though he was handcuffed, his captors told him to swim across the Euphrates River to escape. He couldn’t swim, he said, and didn’t try.
On Wednesday, U.S. and Iraqi forces found what commanders are calling a “hostage slaughterhouse” where foreign captives were held and possibly killed.
The small house in Fallujah’s northern Jolan neighborhood had bloodstained mattresses and straw mats on the floor. Military officials said they found hostages’ documents, CDs showing captives being killed and black clothing like that worn by militants in videos.
In another building in Fallujah, troops also discovered an Iraqi man chained to a wall, the military said. The man, who was shackled at the ankles and wrists, bruised and starving, told Marines he was a taxi driver abducted 10 days ago and that his captors had beat him with cables.