Taliban Pushes France for Detainee Swap

France’s Foreign Ministry said Monday it was consulting with the families of two French TV journalists taken hostage in Afghanistan, after the Taliban demanded that France lean on Afghan and U.S. officials for a prisoner-hostage exchange.

In a statement e-mailed to news organizations, the Taliban said they submitted a list of “ordinary detainees” – meaning not senior figures – held in Afghan jails to France’s government. The Taliban suggested the only route to freedom for the journalists would be through release of those prisoners.

“If those involved in this issue do not show swiftness and urgency, the life of the French will face danger,” the English language statement said.

It said the French government should pressure the U.S. and the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai to meet the demands. Detainees in Afghanistan are held either by the Afghan government or the Americans.

Asked about the demands, French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero declined to comment beyond saying: “We prefer to show the greatest discretion on this point,” because the safety of the hostages and the efforts to free them are at stake.

“We remain completely mobilized both in Paris and Kabul in a view to obtaining their freedom,” Valero said. “We reiterate our firm condemnation of this kidnapping.”

He said French diplomats are in close contact with the editorial leadership of France-3 television, the journalists’ employer, as well as the families of the hostages, who were meeting with ministry officials Monday.

A similar demand was made in a video posted late Sunday on a militant Web site, according to the SITE Intelligence Group that monitors extremist communications.

France-3 made a brief mention of the video during its lunchtime broadcast on Monday, saying the hostage-takers issued “a new ultimatum” to the French government in it.

The pair disappeared Dec. 30 along with two or three Afghan employees while traveling in Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul, where French soldiers are fighting the insurgents as part of a NATO mission.

The French government has said it was cooperating with NATO forces to obtain the journalists’ release, but has stated little publicly about the abductions.

The French government has not identified the journalists, though news reports have cited their first names as Stephane and Herve.

Paris-based media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders criticized comments in February by the then-head of France’s armed forces, who said France had spent over euro10 million to try to find and free the journalists.

In January, the watchdog group expressed its surprise after President Nicolas Sarkozy’s top adviser, Claude Gueant, told French radio that French officials had asked the journalists not to “venture out this way because there are risks,” and said they had displayed “guilty” imprudence.

“The scoop must not be sought at any price,” Gueant said then.

Associated Press

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