France threatened to expel Muslims over kidnapping: Militants would have been sent back to Algeria - and certain arrest - if hostages had been hurt

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FRANCE planned to expel 30 Muslim militants if any harm came to three French hostages taken by Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria two weeks ago, according to reports over the weekend. If the 30 had been deported to Algeria, they would have faced immediate arrest.

But the kidnappers' intention, to drive French residents out of Algeria, seems to have had some sucess. At the Ben Aknoun French lycee in Algiers, 120 of the 535 pupils were absent on Saturday when school resumed after the All Saints' Holiday. Some 70 of these were French nationals whose parents were apparently responding to an appeal by the French Foreign Ministry not to stay in Algeria unless absolutely necessary.

The kidnappers of the three French consular officials, released unharmed on 30 and 31 October, freed Michele Thevenot, the only woman in the group, with a handwritten message saying French residents in Algeria had one month in which to leave. The three were held by the Armed Islamic Group, a hardline organisation opposed to all negotiation with the Algerian authorities.

Another threat, on a video tape delivered to the Algerian government, said all foreigners should go. The message said, in effect, that foreigners in Algeria would be assassinated from December onwards.

Since September, seven foreigners in Algeria have been kidnapped and killed. Two were French. Two Russian military advisers are reported to have been publicly tortured before being killed.

A third threat, in a one-page letter in both French and Arabic, was delivered to the head office of Agence France-Presse in Paris by a young man of European appearance who spoke unaccented French. This warned foreign companies in Algeria of the dangers facing their employees and accused France of being 'the accomplice of the clique in power' in Algeria.

Some 25,000 French nationals are registered with French consulates in the former North African colony. Thousands more hold dual nationality. The French Foreign Ministry said last week that it was cutting France's diplomatic presence to reduce the risks. About 3,000 people are estimated to have returned to France for the school holidays.

Although the abduction of the three consular officials ended happily for France, Paris has now made it plain that any action against French citizens in Algeria will be matched by reprisals against Muslim fundamentalists living in France.

Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist Interior Minister, said supporters of the banned Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in France 'must respect our laws . . . they would do well to listen to the warning I am giving them.'

According to one report, French police were preparing to swoop on Muslim communities at 74 different locations in France last Tuesday. The operation was called off after Mrs Thevenot's release two days earlier. Some 30 FIS sympathisers were singled out for deportation if the hostages were not freed.

In Algerian mosques, meanwhile, measures taken against four schoolgirls - two Moroccan, two Turkish - in the French town of Nantua for wearing Islamic headscarves were the subject of several sermons at Friday prayers. 'Once again, infidels are preventing good Muslims from practising their faith,' said the imam in Algiers' Kouba mosque. The girls were ordered to take off the scarves, in keeping with a 1989 ruling which followed similar incidents in Paris, or stay away from school. State schools in France observe strict secularity.