France Pursues Many Courses to Free Hostages
PARIS (AP) _ Officials refused comment Thursday on a report that France has agreed to pay $1 billion to Iran for the release of French hostages in Lebanon. But the government makes no secret that the sum is the center of its dispute with Iran.
The report Wednesday night by CBS television followed signs that France is pursuing many courses to gain the release of the nine Frenchmen, including efforts to improve relations with Iran and Syria.
On May 23, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac’s office gave a television station snapshots and short notes from four of the station’s employees who are among the hostages.
Officials refused to say how they obtained the documents.
But a day earlier, Chirac talked by telephone with Syrian President Hafez Assad; and Iranian Vice Premier Ali Reza Moayeri ended a four-day visit to Paris. Moayeri was the highest ranking Iranian to visit Paris since the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought Islamic fundamentalist Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.
CBS News quoted unidentified sources as saying France had agreed to pay $1 billion to Iran for release of the hostages and a much lesser sum directly to the kidnappers. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said later: ″We don’t comment on any reports concerning (the hostages).″
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond said efforts to free the hostages ″appear to be progressing, in particular since contacts last week″ with Iranian officials.
But on May 19, Raimond denied a report that Paris was negotiating ransom payments and the delivery of arms to Iran to obtain the hostages’ freedom.
The Le Monde newspaper wrote Friday that ″CBS without doubt is confusing here the negotiations ... between Paris and Tehran on the reimbursement by France of a $1 billion-loan″ to the Atomic Energy Commissariat.
The late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi made the loan for a nuclear reprocessing project called Eurodif. Chirac has said repayment must take into account the numerous contracts Iran broke with France after the revolution.
Moayeri said repaying the loan, halting arms sales to Iraq (its opponent in the Gulf war) and extraditing Iranian exile leaders in France were conditions for good relations. Sources have said those conditions are Iran’s price for seeking the release of the hostages.
The fundamentalist Shiite Moslem group Islamic Holy War, believed loyal to Khomeini, has said it abducted four Frenchmen more than a year ago. Another group, Revolutionary Justice, said it seized the television crew on March 8. No one has claimed responsibility for the May 7 kidnapping of an 85-year-old Frenchman in Beirut.
Islamic Holy War said in March it had killed one hostage, researcher Michel Seurat, but his body was never found.
Moayeri said Iran had no connections or contacts with the Lebanese captors, but promised to ″use our influence.″
France has increased its efforts in recent months to resolve the dispute over the Iranian loan, and several official delegations have visited Tehran.
Last week, both Moayeri and French officials indicated an agreement on the loan repayment was near, and Chirac said France may limit certain ″excesses″ by Iranian exiles. But he said Paris would not abandon Iraq, ″an ally and a friend.″
Meanwhile, French contacts with Syria, the main power-broker in Lebanon, have have become more visible.
The day before the photos of the television crew were released, Chirac said Syria was a ″necessary contact″ for resolving the Lebanese crisis. That night, his office confirmed later, Chirac spoke by telephone with Assad.
A French negotiator also was in Damascus, the Syrian capital, last week.
And in a French radio interview broadcast Wednesday, Syrian Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass said without elaborating that Syria had negotiated with the kidnappers of the Frenchmen. He said if Syria ″knew where the French hostages were, we would have freed them, even by force.″