Couple and Child Freed by Abu Nidal Group, Flown to France
PARIS (AP) _ The Libyan-backed Palestinian group headed by Abu Nidal freed a French woman, a Belgian man and their young daughter Tuesday after holding them for nearly 2 1/2 years.
The three arrived to the cheers of a crowd of relatives and French officials at a military airport outside Paris late Tuesday after a five-hour flight from Beirut. They had been dropped off at the French Embassy in the morning by masked gunmen who arrived in cars with drawn curtains.
Jacqueline Valente, 32, Fernand Houtekins, 43, and their 2-year-old daughter Sophie-Liberte, born in captivity, made no public statements though the couple smiled as they got off the plane. They were taken to a military hospital to spend their first night in freedom after 882 days’ captivity.
Abu Nidal’s group announced Nov. 8, 1987, it had seized the hostages from the French yacht Silco in the Mediterranean off the Gaza Strip. It accused them of collaborating with Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency. Friends said the group was on a holiday cruise.
The French government thanked Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi for his role in the release and said relations with Libya would improve. Gadhafi last week called for the release of hostages as a humanitarian gesture.
President Bush, in Toronto, said he didn’t know enough about the release to say whether Gadhafi deserves any credit.
″We’ve got some major differences with Libya that continue to exist, but look, who am I to argue in this case if someone can help free one hostage? ... Give that person credit,″ Bush said.
The hostages, released by the Fatah-Revolutionary Council, used an executive jet in Beirut provided by the French government to fly to Villacoublay near Paris. Ms. Valente was the first to disembark, followed by Houtekins, holding their daughter in his arms. All appeared healthy.
The Fatah-Revolutionary Council has been blamed for scores of terrorist acts, including the December 1985 attacks on Rome and Vienna airports that killed more than 20 people.
Because the hostages were believed to have been held in Libya, the case is considered unrelated to the 18 Westerners, including eight Americans, held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian Shiite Moslem factions.
However, Fatah spokesman Walid Khaled denied assertions that the hostages had been held in Libya. Speaking at a news conference in Beirut, he said the hostages had been kept in Lebanon.
The State Department welcomed the release and called for freeing of other captives.
However, U.S. officials in Washington were critical of France’s warm words for Gadhafi. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said France and other countries should press Libya to expel Abu Nidal and his group and stop alleged efforts to make chemical weapons.
″France is being nicer to Libya than we think they should be,″ said one U.S. official.
The release came a month after France returned to Libya three French-made Mirage jet fighters that had been in France for repairs since 1986. The return of the planes was blocked by an embargo imposed when Libya and France backed opposing sides during the civil war in Chad.
In December, Libya, pressing for delivery of the aircraft, closed its ports to French ships.
Gadhafi said Tuesday that Abu Nidal’s group was ″distancing″ itself from its terrorist reputation by releasing the hostages, Libya’s official news agency JANA reported.
Last week, Gadhafi urged the release of hostages in the Middle East as a gesture for Ramadan, the Islamic holy month. He singled out Ms. Valente.
Gadhafi has supported Abu Nidal, who along with some of his followers has been convicted of terrorist attacks abroad. The Libyan leader is believed to have allowed him to live near the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Houtekins said after his release that four members of his family still held by the terrorist group are well.
″They have morale. They are holding firm,″ he said, adding, ″We expected our freedom, we knew it was coming one day. The day of our freedom has arrived. For those who stay behind, we keep hoping.″
″I embrace all my family. I am well, and the little one also,″ Ms. Valente told French reporters.
Only two French news organizations were given access to the hostages.
The hostages refused to discuss conditions of their captivity or where they were held. They did not mention a second child born in captivity in 1989.
French Ambassador Rene Ala said Ms. Valente told him the boy died recently of problems with his digestive system.
A police spokesman said French officials ″apparently had advance notice of the release. Ala was waiting at a cement outpost manned by French Marine guards near the main gate″ of the West Beirut compound.
In Beirut, the Fatah-Revolutionary spokesman said, ″Direct talks between our movement and the French side have resulted in an agreement on their release.″ Khaled did not elaborate.
There was no evidence of any deal, but French President Francois Mitterrand personally thanked Gadhafi for ″the determining role he played in the happy ending of this affair.″
Foreign Minister Roland Dumas praised what he called Gadhafi’s ″noble″ gesture.
″(The release’s) real value will be appreciated in the future of relations between France and Libya,″ Dumas said without elaborating.
In Brussels, Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens said he hoped the release ″can be considered as a testimony of good faith concerning the release of the other″ hostages.
The Abu Nidal group still holds Houtekins’ brother Emmanuel, and Emmanuel’s wife and teen-age daughter and son.
The group linked freedom for them to the release of Nasser Sa’eed, a Palestinian serving a life term in Belgium for a June 1980 grenade attack on Jewish youths in Antwerp.
The Belgian government has not responded to the offer.
Two other daughters of Ms. Valente were freed as a result of Libyan intervention on Dec. 29, 1988.
In France, Jacqueline’s mother Brigitte Valente said Tuesday: ″The nightmare is over and I’m trembling with joy. I can’t even talk. It’s too beautiful.″