MPs' aides accused of putting French hostages in danger

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Two self-appointed negotiators who led a bizarre, independent attempt to free the two French journalists held hostage in Iraq were accused yesterday of "communicating with a foreign power" and damaging the "fundamental interests" of France.

Philippe Brett and Philippe Evano, both 45, were freed after two days of questioning by French anti-terrorist police but will be mis en examen, placed under formal, criminal investigation, within days. The two Phillippes, with a history of connections to the far-right and shadowy relationships with dictatorships in Africa and the Middle East, were arrested after an unseemly public row after the release of the journalists on 23 December.

The French government has accused the right-wing MP who sponsored their mission, Didier Julia of President Jacques Chirac's UMP party, of placing the lives of the hostages in danger and "acting against France's interests". M. Julia is protected by parliamentary immunity and cannot be arrested or formally accused unless the National Assembly agrees.

M. Julia, 71, has accused the French Foreign Ministry and secret services of being useless and prolonging unnecessarily the captivity of the journalists, seized near Baghdad on 20 August. He suggested on Tuesday that the arrest of his two associates was a "base political manoeuvre" intended to disguise the government's own failings.

Many aspects of the affair remain murky and unexplained but the French press, and the hostages, accept the government's version of events. Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro and Ouest-France and Christian Chesnot, of Radio France, called M. Julia a "manipulator" and "compulsive liar".

In late September, when official attempts to release the pair seemed to be stalled, M. Brett and M. Evano turned up in the region and claimed they had made contact with the hostage-takers in the "Islamic Army of Iraq".

M. Brett, a former body-guard of the deputy head of the far-right National Front party who had links with Saddam Hussein's regime, claimed in a radio interview on his mobile phone to be "20 metres from the hostages", near Baghdad. French secret services said their tracking devices showed M. Brett was in Syria when he made the call.

French officials accused M. Julia and his associates of scrambling official efforts to release the journalists. But the French Foreign Ministry had supported M. Julia's request for a visa to Syria to pursue the negotiations.

Investigators in France believe Syria - whose relations with Paris are abysmal - may have manipulated M. Julia and his helpers in an attempt to foil the official attempts to release M. Malbrunot and M. Chesnot. Bizarrely, the Julia mission was funded by another implacable foe of France, the president of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo. The accusation of contact with a foreign power that endangers France is rarely used, and was occasionally deployed against suspected Soviet agents or sympathisers during the Cold War. Whether this "foreign power" was Syria or the Ivory Coast, or both, remains unclear.