When kidnappers freed three French hostages in Lebanon last week, the initial reaction back home was elation. But by the afternoon of May 5, as the trio returned from three years’ captivity at the hands of pro-Iranian extremists, the mood had begun to change. The government of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, who faced a runoff election for the presidency against incumbent
François Mitterrand last weekend, had indeed succeeded in negotiating the release of the hostages, said a front-page editorial in the Paris daily Le Monde. But “at what price?” it asked. French officials at first denied that the government had paid a ransom. “We did not pay a single franc, a single dollar, a single mark, a single yen,” said Interior Minister Charles Pasqua. Then Lebanese sources revealed that the French had made major concessions to Iran. And leaders of some of France’s allies claimed that bargaining with the kidnappers could prolong the captivity of up to 22 foreign hostages still held in Lebanon.
The hostage release was one of several dramatic international initiatives launched by Chirac last week. On Thursday officials in France’s South
Pacific territory of New Caledonia announced that French commandos had stormed a cliff-top cave and freed 22 gendarmes being held by separatist rebels. And just a day later French officials announced that a French secret agent confined on a South Pacific atoll for her role in sabotaging the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in 1985 can return to France. The three initiatives, taking place only days before the
final round of the presidential election, may have been designed to improve Chirac’s chances against the frontrunning Socialist, Mitterrand. Lionel Jospin, first secretary of the Socialist party, accused Chirac of a “formidable attempt to manipulate the end of the campaign.”
Still, Chirac clearly revelled in his triumphs. “The whole of France shares the same feeling of joy at this moment,” Chirac said after diplomats Marcel Carton and Marcel Fontaine and journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann disembarked from an executive jet after arriving from Lebanon. The hostages themselves appeared exhilarated by their newfound freedom. “It’s a rebirth,” said Kauffmann, “because for three years I won’t say we lived, we survived.” Kauffmann said that he
passed the time in captivity by reading the Bible and Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which he read 21 times. The former hostages said that their captors told them all the other Western hostages in Lebanon were alive. But Kauffmann’s sister quoted him as saying that some of the U.S. hostages—including Frank Herbert Reed, who was director of the Lebanese International School when he was captured on Sept. 9, 1986—were brutally treated by their captors after trying to escape.
Questions about the hostages’ release began even as they were flying back to Paris. Lebanese sources said that the French had secured the release by paying a ransom to the kidnappers, undertaking to sell arms to Iran and agreeing to repay part of a large Iranian loan. And a senior Iranian official said that Iran helped free the hostages because of France’s “positive attitudes.” Chirac spokesman Denis Baudouin later acknowledged that France had repaid part of a $1billion debt to Iran. The loan was negotiated before the 1979 revolution, and Iranian officials say that France is now arranging terms for repaying the balance. Chirac said that diplomatic relations with Iran would be restored after a nine-month break. But Chirac denounced those who “insinuated” that France had struck a deal with terrorists. “I say solemnly,,! say on my honor, that no negotiation, no compromise, no bargaining, no deal took place with any foreign government, or even less with any terrorist group,” he said.
But many allied leaders seemed skeptical. In Washington, a state department spokesman said, “We would be concerned by any sign that concessions were made. We believe that concessions encourage further kidnapping.” British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that Britain would never bargain with terrorists for the release of the three British hostages—including Anglican Church special envoy Terry Waite—held in Lebanon. In France itself, most politicians avoided criticizing the government. One exception was Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of the right-wing National Front, who said the “shameful” hostage deal
had “thrown wide open the doors to terrorism.”
But even Le Pen praised the government’s action in New Caledonia. France’s overseas minister, Bernard Pons, said the decision to attack the kidnappers was taken only after they had threatened to kill their captives. Led by Capt. Philippe Lego rj us, head of an elite French antiterrorist squad, a 60-man unit comprised of gendarmes, marines and paratroopers of the 11th Shock Regiment sneaked through the bush at dawn on Thursday and opened fire on the 30 native Melanesians in a heavily fortified cave on Ouvéa island, 320 km from the capital, Nouméa.
In the seven-hour gunfight, 19 rebels and two French commandos were killed. The troops were aided by two captive police officers inside the cave, who opened fire with revolvers smuggled to them by Lego rj us while he negotiated with the kidnappers. After the assault, leaders of the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, which is waging a violent campaign for independence, described it as a “new demonstration of colonial barbarism” and called for a general uprising against French rule. In response, Pons placed the 8,000 French troops and police in the territory on maximum alert.
Like the hostage release, the attack may have sowed the seeds of future trouble. Le Monde said that the “separatists now have some new martyrs and new reasons to throw themselves into a desperate guerrilla war.” For his part, President Mitterrand said that the assault had been necessary but the toll was “sorrowful.”
The return of Capt. Dominique Prieur of the French secret service also raised some pointed questions. A New Zealand court convicted the secret agent and her partner, Maj. Alain Mafart, in the 1985 bombing of the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbor in which a Greenpeace photographer was killed. Under an agreement between France and New Zealand, the two were to remain in exile at a French military base on Hao atoll in the Pacific until July, 1989. But Mafart was repatriated last December after complaining of stomach trouble. The reason for Prieur’s return: she is expecting a child by her husband, Joel, who was allowed to visit her frequently.
New Zealand Prime Minister David Lange called Prieur’s repatriation without his country’s approval a clear breach of France’s obligations under international law. Despite having their kidnapped soldiers free, their hostages home and Prieur on the way, the French still did not have an unalloyed triumph.
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