Aubenas recounts Iraq kidnap ordeal

14th June 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, June 14 (AFP) - A French journalist freed from a hostage ordeal in Iraq relived her five months of captivity Tuesday as she told reporters of the cruel conditions she was kept in - and became emotional but tight-lipped when asked about Romanian journalists who claimed to have been held with her.

PARIS, June 14 (AFP) - A French journalist freed from a hostage ordeal in Iraq relived her five months of captivity Tuesday as she told reporters of the cruel conditions she was kept in - and became emotional but tight-lipped when asked about Romanian journalists who claimed to have been held with her.  

Florence Aubenas, the 44-year-old senior correspondent for the Liberation newspaper, who was released Saturday with her Iraqi interpreter, Hussein Hanun, said she did not know whether a ransom was paid, only that "no one ever spoke to me about money."  

"I still don't know why I was freed," she told a media conference in Paris.  

Frequently giggling and looking relaxed but gaunt, Aubenas said with a voice turning hoarse from lack of use that she and Hanun were seized close to Baghdad's university.  

She then endured tough months hidden in a cramped, four-by-two-metre (13-by-six foot) basement too low to stand up in, with her feet and hands bound and a blindfold always over her eyes.  

She shared her captivity with another hostage she was not allowed to speak with, and only found out days before her release that it was Hanun.  

Her captors, who vaguely presented themselves as members of an unspecified Sunni "religious movement", permitted no exchanges that might have created bonds.  

She said they beat her when they thought she made too much noise on her mattress or might have spoken to the other hostage, and called her by the name "Leila" or "number 6". Hanun was called prisoner "number 5".  

At one point the leader, identified to her only as "the Boss" or "Hadji", ordered her up for questioning and accused her of being a spy.  

She was told to make a video which was broadcast March 1 in which she was ordered to say she was in bad physical condition and make an appeal to a French MP who led a failed unofficial bid to free two other French reporters.  

The MP, Didier Julia, has been ostracised by President Jacques Chirac's ruling party for his renegade campaign to free the two reporters in Iraq, who ended up being released to French officials in December.  

She said "the Boss" told her he had spoken directly to Julia by telephone once and stated: "I know Mr Julia and I've heard about him from friends."  

Her kidnappers also knew the two other French reporters, Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and George Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper, she said.  

Asked about three Romanian reporters who claimed to have been held with her before their own release last month, Aubenas became uncharacteristically tight-lipped and a distraught expression crept over her face.  

"The situation is delicate.... I can't speak about the Romanians," she said.  

Her comments deepened a mystery about the Romanians, television reporter Marie-Jeanne Ion, newspaper reporter Eduard Ohanesian and cameraman Sorin Miscoci, who were seized on March 28 and freed on May 22.  

The trio have kept silent about the details of their release until Sunday because of what they said were fears that any account might jeopardise the lives of Aubenas and her Iraqi interpreter.  

Ion told Romanian television on Sunday: "We were held in the same place for almost a month.... Florence was remarkable throughout. She constantly encouraged us. She is amazingly strong. She never allowed us to give up hope that we will be released."  

Their account was confirmed by former French foreign minister Michel Barnier, who headed the hostage negotiations up to two weeks ago, when he was ousted in a government reshuffle.  

The presence of the Romanians "was reported to us immediately after their release and we kept that information to ourselves, naturally. They had been detained together in the same place," he told radio station RMC.  

Nevertheless, Aubenas resisted persistent questions about the Romanians, her face becoming unusually grave.  

Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, speaking in parliament minutes before Aubenas's media conference, paid homage to Romania's authorities and especially to Romanian President Traian Basescu.  

According to Le Monde newspaper, Romanian intelligence services had traced back the kidnapping of the Romanian journalists to a group called the Brigade of Muad bin Jabal and were looking for an Iraqi going by the name "Abu Sahar".  

New French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said clues about Aubenas's kidnappers were "often contradictory" but that "discretion, a sense of responsibility, commitment and, obviously, often silence before during and after every hostage-taking had to prevail."

© AFP

Subject: French News

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