France rejects ‘absurd’ Taliban hostage spy claims

France rejected as “absurd” Saturday Taliban claims that two French journalists held hostage in Afghanistan for more than a year may have been spying, and said it was committed to securing their release.

A Taliban spokesman accused France earlier Saturday of not paying “much attention” to its demands for the release of Herve Ghesquiere and Stephane Taponier, whom it said had been intelligence gathering rather than reporting.

French authorities “categorically deny the absurd accusation of spying made against our compatriots,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Ghesquiere and Taponier were merely two journalists kidnapped while carrying out their work, it said.

“For a year, there have been constant talks to allow our compatriots to return to their families safe and sound,” it said.

“The determination of the French authorities remains unbroken today and, as the president (Nicolas Sarkozy) recalled on Friday, we will continue to mobilise all our efforts until the day they are freed,” it said.

The pair were captured on December 30, 2009 with three Afghan colleagues while travelling without a military escort in an area northwest of Kabul known as a stronghold of anti-government Islamic militants such as the Taliban.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP Saturday that his group had presented the French government with conditions for their release but “unfortunately they have not paid much attention”.

They were taken because “they had come to the area without our permission,” he said.

“Second, they were engaged in gathering information that has the nature of intelligence gathering. The information and documents recovered from them suggest they were after intelligence gathering.”

France Televisions, which includes the France 3 chain for which the men work, said suggestions that Ghesquiere and Taponier had been spying were “baseless and ridiculous”.