MP attacks 'useless' minister's failure to free French hostages

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The Independent Online

After the joy, the recriminations. France's mood of national euphoria following the release of its two journalist hostages in Iraq gave way to an unseasonal public slanging match yesterday between the government and one of its own parliamentarians.

After the joy, the recriminations. France's mood of national euphoria following the release of its two journalist hostages in Iraq gave way to an unseasonal public slanging match yesterday between the government and one of its own parliamentarians.

At the centre of the controversy was the maverick deputy, Didier Julia, a member of President Jacques Chirac's UMP party and a long-time apologist for the toppled regime of President Saddam Hussein. M. Julia, 70, led a bizarre and self-dramatising freelance attempt to rescue the hostages in late September, an initiative which now stands accused by government and hostages alike of delaying their release and pitting their lives in danger.

Unabashed, M. Julia, who makes a speciality of defending the indefensible, gave a radio interview yesterday in which he launched a vitriolic attack on the Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, a member of his own party. The deputy for Seine-et-Marne, east of Paris, a constituency he has held for 37 years, said M. Barnier was a "completely useless minister" and that the four months the hostages were held captive were "four months of incompetence by the Foreign Minister".

Earlier, the government's official spokesman, Jean-François Copé said M. Julia had acted "irresponsibly" in leading an unofficial mission to Baghdad in September, which made baseless claims that it had contacted the hostage-takers and won approval for the journalists' release.

The head of the UMP in the National Assembly said that M. Julia faced expulsion from the group.

The controversy about the Julia mission - which received the tacit approval of at least parts of the French state apparatus - has calmed in recent weeks as France concentrated on secret diplomacy to release its hostages. The row was reignited by the hostages themselves within a few minutes of their arrival on French soil on Wednesday night.

In a statement to journalist at Villacoublay air force base west of Paris, Georges Malbrunot, 41, a reporter for Le Figaro and Ouest-France, accused M. Didier of being a "compulsive liar". Of the Didier mission - which also included a shadowy former far-right sympathiser called Philippe Brett - M. Malbrunot said: "I am outraged by [their] behaviour... it was playing with the lives of their compatriots, which deserves nothing but contempt."

M. Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, 37, of Radio France, were freed on Tuesday after 124 days in the hands of the Islamic Army in Iraq. They were being debriefed by French security services yesterday before rejoining their families for Christmas.

Michel Barnier said: "They [the Julia mission] interrupted our efforts and caused the breakdown of negotiations which had almost succeeded on September 28-29."

The mission remains one of the many shadowy areas in the French hostage saga.French newspapers have speculated that it may have been a question - not for the first time - of rival parts of the French security services trying to undermine each other's efforts.

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