French Mediator Arrives in Beirut
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ The head of a pro-Arab French lobbying group who helped persuade guerrillas to release two French children in 1988 arrived Saturday amid speculation he was on a new mediation mission.
Lucien Bitterlin drove to Moslem west Beirut from Damascus, capital of neighboring Syria, to meet Defense Minister Albert Mansour, Information Minister Edmond Rizk and army commander Gen. Emile Lahoud at a beachside hotel.
Bitterlin, a former Gaullist member of Parliament who leads the Franco-Arab Solidarity Association, refused to talk to reporters about why he was in Beirut.
But his arrival raised speculation that he was seeking to secure the release of French and Belgian captives held by a radical Palestinian guerrilla group led by terrorist mastermind Abu Nidal.
Bitterlin negotiated the Dec. 29, 1988, release of Marie-Laure Valente, then age 7, and her sister, Virginie, then age 6, from 13 months of the captivity with Abu Nidal’s Fatah-Revolutionary Council faction.
The Libyan-backed guerrillas still are holding the children’s mother, Jacqueline Valente, and a baby daughter born in captivity, as well as five Belgians.
They were taken captive Nov. 8, 1987, when the Silco, an old sardine trawler, was seized off the Israeli-occupied Gaza Strip by Abu Nidal’s guerrillas.
There have been reports that the boat was in fact seized off Libya, adding to the mystery that has surrounded the plight of the captives since they disappeared.
The Abu Nidal group claims the adults are agents of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, and have made ″valuable″ confessions.
The girls’ freedom was widely viewed as an effort by Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi to boost his image at a time when the U.S. government, alleging Libya was building a chemical weapons plant, threatened to launch a military strike.
Gadhafi called for the girls’ release during Christmas 1988.
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, the September 1986 attack on an Istanbul synagogue that killed 21 worshipers and the 1983 mid-air bombing of a Gulf Air jetliner that killed all 122 people aboard.
The case is considered unrelated to the 18 Westerners held hostage in Lebanon by pro-Iranian factions. They include eight Americans. The longest held is Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press, who was kidnapped on March 16, 1985.