France demands kidnappers deal with officials only

4th March 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 3 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Thursday demanded that the kidnappers of a journalist taken hostage in Iraq deal with French officials only, after a maverick MP named in a video they released this week put conditions on his aid.

PARIS, March 3 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Thursday demanded that the kidnappers of a journalist taken hostage in Iraq deal with French officials only, after a maverick MP named in a video they released this week put conditions on his aid.

Raffarin, speaking after a crisis meeting with senior parliamentarians, told the unidentified group holding Florence Aubenas, a senior correspondent with the Liberation newspaper, to communicate "only with official French services."

He said it would be "unacceptable" for the MP in question - Didier Julia, a member of the ruling UMP party who has links to former members of Saddam Hussein's regime - to act alone to mediate Aubenas's release.

Julia, a 71-year-old Arabic speaker who headed a failed mission to rescue two other French journalists held hostage in Iraq last year, denied on Thursday that he had asked to act on his own.

"I have said I was collaborating with the French authorities ... and I have done so," Julia told AFP.

"Either Jean-Pierre Raffarin is in the process of getting Florence Aubenas out through the intelligence services - in which case he does not need me - or he is going to put her in an extremely difficult situation," he added.

The deputy also said he had contributed valuable new information during his hour-long questioning by French intelligence officers, although Raffarin said Julia had brought "no new, concrete element" that could help free Aubenas.

Aubenas, who disappeared in Baghdad January 5 with her Iraqi interpreter, Hussein Hanun al-Saadi, was seen in a video broadcast Tuesday saying she was in a "bad" way and pleading for Julia to help her.

"This is urgent now. Help me! I ask especially Mr Didier Julia, the French deputy. Please Mr Julia. Help me! It's urgent. Mr Julia help me!" the 43-year-old senior correspondent said.

Aubenas's newspaper and French officials said it appeared the reporter had been forced by her kidnappers to appeal to Julia for reasons unknown - raising speculation that his past ties to Baathists now probably involved in the Iraqi insurgency might be key.

Iraq's human rights minister, Bakhtiar Amin, said that the kidnappers were in all likelihood "Saddam loyalists who have connections in France".

"My understanding of the situation is that there are communication channels" between the kidnappers and "connections" in France, Amin said following a meeting with Aubenas' mother Jacqueline in Brussels.

Julia created controversy last September when he headed a failed mission to free two other French reporters taken in Iraq, Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale and Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper.

The two journalists, who were eventually freed in December, accused him of jeopardising their lives through his independent venture, which confused and angered their kidnappers, and called him "beneath contempt".

Julia has said he "probably" knows the group holding Aubenas and stressed in a statement to AFP earlier Thursday that the video "contains a single and solitary demand: my mediation."

He said he stood ready to help, but only if the government lifted a criminal investigation of his two assistants involved in the previous failed rescue mission.

The assistants, Philippe Brett, a pro-Saddam lobbyist, and Philippe Evanno, a UMP member, are being probed for putting Chesnot and Malbrunot's lives at risk and collaborating with "a foreign power" - taken to be Syria, which hosted Julia for the duration of his mission.

The French government last week received another video of Aubenas - never made public - in which she identified herself but made no mention of Julia.

There was no mention of Saadi, no identification of the kidnappers nor any demand from them in either video. It was not even clear when or where the videos were made.

The reference to Julia, known for grandstanding before the media, has led many observers to speculate that Syria might be involved and that the video plea was part of a wider geopolitical game related to France's sponsorship of a UN resolution demanding Syria withdraw from Lebanon.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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