Chirac call for national unityafter failed bid for hostages

5th October 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Oct 5 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac called Tuesday for national unity to help free two French reporters held hostage in Iraq after recriminations over a botched unofficial rescue mission badly embarrassed him and his government.

 

PARIS, Oct 5 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac called Tuesday for national unity to help free two French reporters held hostage in Iraq after recriminations over a botched unofficial rescue mission badly embarrassed him and his government.  

"During this ordeal, the strength of our action lies in the cohesion of the entire country," Chirac told his ministers before leaving on an Asian tour, according to government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope.  

"The safety of our compatriots and their release are our only objectives. I call on everyone to assume their responsibilities," Chirac was quoted as saying.  

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin held a crisis meeting with the leaders of France's main political parties Tuesday, during which he showed a recent video of the two hostages, Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, one of the politicians present said.  

The video showed the pair "alive and in good health" on the date it was believed to have been recorded, September 22, said the parliamentary leader of Chirac's ruling UMP party, Bernard Accoyer.  

On Monday radical Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr called for the release of the journalists, who were abducted south of Baghdad on August 20 with their Syrian driver.  

"I call for the release of the two French hostages, as France is not an occupier and refuses this occupation," Sadr told Al-Manar television channel of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.  

The reporters are believed to be held by an insurgent group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq, which initially offered to turn them over if France rescinded a new law banning Islamic headscarves in its state schools. Paris rejected the demand.  

French newspapers have printed investigations suggesting the government was involved in the failed private mission to free the two reporters that was headed by Didier Julia, a 70-year-old MP in Chirac's party.  

The mission came up empty-handed when a convoy that was meant to carry the reporters to the Syrian border and freedom failed to materialise Friday.  

Officials on the weekend publicly blasted Julia, with Chirac criticising his "interference" and Raffarin calling the initiative "a threat for our fellow countrymen".  

But two left-leaning dailies, Le Monde and Liberation, printed investigations in their Tuesday editions suggesting the government was aware of "Operation Julia" since its inception in September.  

Liberation said the French embassy in Syria requested visas itself for Julia to enter the country, while Le Monde strongly hinted that the whole affair was an under-the-table ransom payment gone wrong.  

Responding, foreign ministry spokesman Herve Ladsous admitted the embassy in Damascus had acted on behalf of Julia and his team because "we did not want to frustrate their initiative, even though we had not been informed of what it consisted."  

Chesnot and Malbrunot's families issued a statement Monday asking "all of France's representative figures to not get into debates that could undermine the national consensus and, at the same time, have consequences on the liberation of Christian and Georges."  

The leaders of the Socialist and Communist opposition parties agreed to rally to the call for national unity, although Socialist party leader Francois Hollande insisted that government "clarification" on Operation Julia must still be forthcoming.  

Raffarin, for his part, stressed that Julia "carried out a personal initiative with no official mandate". The visa request notwithstanding, he said "the government did not approve it (the mission), does not approve it, and did not support it".  

Liberation, in an editorial, summed up what it and other media have labelled a "fiasco".  

Either the government was so completely lost in its efforts to free the reporters it clutched "at a straw knowing it to be rotten" or Chirac's office "used its right hand to cut off its left (Julia)".  

Julia was at fault, it said, "but in the end it's Jacques Chirac who is accountable for the fate of the hostages."

© AFP

Subject: French News

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