Danielle Mitterrand escapes bomb attack

DANIELLE MITTERRAND, the wife of the French President, had a narrow brush with death yesterday when a large car bomb exploded next to her motorcade in northern Iraq. Mrs Mitterrand, 67, telephoned her husband Francois at the Group of Seven summit in Germany to say she was in 'perfect health'. Bernard Kouchner, the French Minister of Health and Humanitarian Affairs, also escaped unhurt.

But the bomb killed at least three of their Kurdish bodyguards and injured 19 people, several of them seriously, United Nations and French sources said. Siamond Banaa, a Kurdish spokesman in London, said: 'Our experts are sure the bomb came from the Iraqi government because it was remote-controlled and because of the type of explosives used.'

The device was hidden in a Toyota Land-Cruiser that erupted in a 60ft fireball. Reports said the vehicle bore the markings of the UN or a private relief agency and was either part of the convoy or was parked near a roadblock close to Sulaymaniyah, 170 miles north of Baghdad.

The sources said Mrs Mitterrand continued with her day's programme, a visit to Halabja, the scene of an Iraqi chemical bombing raid in 1988 that killed 5,000 people and helped kindle her support for the Kurds. Kurdish officials and foreign diplomats were in little doubt that the prime suspect for the attack on the group was the Iraqi government of President Saddam Hussein.

Mrs Mitterrand's 'deep contacts' with Kurdish 'dissident gangs' constituted 'foolish behaviour and a rude violation of Iraq's dignity and sovereignty', said the Iraqi newspaper Al- Qadissiyeh in an article that appeared before the bombing.

There has been a number of attacks, almost certainly by Iraqi agents, within the three Kurdish provinces over the last six months. Earlier this year a car bomb, similar to that which blew up yesterday, exploded close to the Salaam hotel in Sulaymaniyah, killing several passers-by.

The aim of Iraqi security is to show that Kurdish opposition leaders do not have complete control of Kurdistan and that Iraqis can penetrate the Kurdish- controlled areas. There is heavy security by Kurdish guerrillas on the roads from Kirkuk and Iraqi-government controlled zones, but soldiers manning the road blocks can often be bribed.

In theory, Mrs Mitterrand was on a private three-day trip on behalf of her charity France-Libertes. In the event she travelled in a small French government jet to the Turkish city of Diyarbakir and then on by helicopters from the allied 'Provide Comfort' force that still protects the Kurds of northern Iraq.

Mr Kouchner became the most senior foreign government official ever to visit the Kurdish zone, although he said he was there only to study medical assistance, rehousing and education.

France insists that it is opposed to an independent Kurdish state. But Mrs Mitterrand has backed to the hilt the Kurds' drive for self-rule and is much loved by them in return. A standing ovation greeted her speech on Sunday to the Iraqi Kurdish parliament in Arbil a few hours after the Iraqi Kurds announced the shape of their coalition cabinet following the 19 May elections.

The cabinet will consist of eight ministers each from the Kurdistan Democratic Party and eight from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) with one Assyrian Christian. The Prime Minister is Fuad Masoum, a PUK leader.

'We are neither independent nor autonomous,' Mr Masoum was quoted as saying yesterday by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet. 'We are somewhere in between. Only time will show where we are going.'

(Photograph omitted)

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