Syria 'holding hostages' to punish France

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The Independent Online

The French government believes that two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq may have been taken to Syria with the connivance of authorities in Damascus. French officials would not comment officially yesterday but suspicions were confirmed by a senior politician and reported by the newspaper, Le Figaro, which employs one of the missing men.

The French government believes that two French journalists taken hostage in Iraq may have been taken to Syria with the connivance of authorities in Damascus. French officials would not comment officially yesterday but suspicions were confirmed by a senior politician and reported by the newspaper, Le Figaro, which employs one of the missing men.

The paper suggested Syria's intervention was "cynical" and even hostile but could lead, paradoxically, to the release of Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, captured by a mysterious opposition group in Iraq 49 days ago.

The men are said to have been repeatedly moved around, with a final stop near Ramadi, in western Iraq before crossing into Syria, say sources in Muslim clerical circles in Baghdad.

It might now be easier for Paris to negotiate "state to state" with Syria than with small groups of hostage-takers with "changeable moods", the newspaper said.

François Bayrou, head of the centrist UDF party, said after a briefing on the hostage situation by the Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin: "The government has not excluded the possibility [that the hostages are in Syria] but it's not up to me to comment on that."

Le Figaro, in a front-page article signed by its deputy editor, Charles Lambroschoini, said intelligence sources in France and in the Arab world suspected Syria had intervened in the hostage crisis to "punish" Paris for supporting an anti-Syrian resolution in the UN Security Council. The newspaper suggested Damascus has been largely responsible for the near-farcical events at the weekend in which a maverick member of the French parliament claimed he had succeeded in an independent mission to free the two and their Syrian driver-interpreter.

The claims of the parliamentarian - Didier Julia, of President Jacques Chirac's UMP party - came to nothing amid a blizzard of recriminations. M. Julia said the official French attempts to release the hostages were "lost in the wilderness". He described the French diplomatic service as "a bunch of penguins".

Paris disowned M. Julia's efforts. The government accused him of ruining its own patient negotiations with the hostage-takers, then admitted it had opened some diplomatic doors for M. Julia's bizarre team of negotiators, which included former Saddam Hussein sympathisers, close to the French far right.

The fiasco came close to shattering the mood of national unity which has existed in France since the journalists were captured. To calm criticism by the press and opposition parties, M. Raffarin called in party leaders on Tuesday and revealed that the government had been given a video tape showing the two men were alive on 18 September.

At this meeting, M. Raffarin also appears to have revealed the suspected Syrian connection. France supported a US-sponsored resolution in the UN last month which criticised the continued presence of Syrian troops in Lebanon. Le Figaro said yesterday that Syrian interference in the hostage crisis would be a "typical piece of vengeance of the kind often used, to the point of cynicism, by Damascus".

The French government is now said to suspect that the hostage-takers were not, as first thought, radical Islamists but former Baath party members, still loyal to Saddam. The hostage-takers are believed to be either under the influence of Damascus or to have actually transferred the hostages to Syrian control.

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