France suspects Syria link in journalist's kidnap

2nd March 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 2 (AFP) - French intelligence services were Wednesday studying two videos of a reporter taken hostage in Iraq - one of which was broadcast the day before - amid suspicions that Syria had links to those holding her, media said.

PARIS, March 2 (AFP) - French intelligence services were Wednesday studying two videos of a reporter taken hostage in Iraq - one of which was broadcast the day before - amid suspicions that Syria had links to those holding her, media said.

The front pages of all of France's dailies were given over to the latest video, initially shown by Italian television station Sky-Italia Tuesday, which showed Florence Aubenas, a senior correspondent of the Liberation newspaper, looking gaunt and desperate.

"Please help me. My health is very bad. I'm very bad psychologically also," Aubenas was seen pleading, in English, her knees drawn up to her chest and sitting in front of a plain reddish background.

"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!" she said in the 50-second video.

Technical experts at the DGSE foreign espionage service and other branches of the defence ministry were analysing the video to try to determine when and where it was taken.

The government and Liberation said an earlier video, contained on a CD-ROM, had been received last week.

Liberation said Wednesday that that video, which lasted 40 seconds, was not made public at the demand of authorities, who claimed to be observing a request by the kidnappers. It showed Aubenas against a black background, essentially making the same statement in English - but without the reference to Julia.

In both cases, there has been no indication as to who is holding Aubenas, nor mention of any demands nor of Aubenas's Iraqi interpreter, Hussein Hanun al-Saadi, who disappeared with her in Baghdad on January 5.

But the Julia reference has concerned and puzzled French officials and the media - and raised speculation that Syria might have a link to the hostage-takers.

Julia, an Arabic-speaking MP in President Jacques Chirac's ruling UMP party, is seen as having ties to Damascus.

"This is a woman who is suffering and who, under conditions we know nothing about, has made a personal plea to a French MP," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier told Le Monde newspaper Wednesday.

Julia, Barnier added, "indicated last night (Tuesday) on television that he probably knew the hostage-takers and that they knew him too."

Although authorities have ordered Julia not to mount any mission alone, he has been asked to stand-by should they need him. Barnier said "we have to follow all leads."

A former archaeologist, Julia has been to the Middle East many times and had ties to senior Baath party members in Saddam Hussein's deposed regime.

Many of those ex-Baathists are involved in the insurgency groups in Iraq, and Syria is suspected of supporting some of them.

Julia, though has been ostracised in the UMP after heading a failed mission last September in Syria to free two other French reporters who had been taken hostage in Iraq in August.

Those journalists, Georges Malbrunot of Le Figaro newspaper and Christian Chesnot of Radio France Internationale, later condemned Julia as "beneath contempt" for jeopardising the official bid which eventually succeeded in freeing them in December. The government denied having paid a ransom.

Julia said he was willing to help in the Aubenas case, but to do so the government would first have to lift a criminal investigation against his team launched after the failure of his first venture.

Asked on France's TF1 television if there could be a Syrian link to the kidnapping, Julia said Tuesday he did not think so, stating: "The Syrians are traditional friends of France."

Relations between France and Syria have been extremely strained for more than six months, however, because of French and US sponsorship of a UN resolution demanding Syria withdraw troops from Lebanon and stop interfering in that country's affairs.

"Among the experts following the matter, the coincidence of the open crisis over Lebanon... and the abduction gives rise to many questions on what role might be played by Syria, with whom Didier Julia has close contacts," Liberation said.

The French radio station Europe 1 reported that the head of Syrian military intelligence, Assef Shwakat (who is also brother-in-law to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad), visited Paris discreetly last week and told French officials his services were at their disposition in the Aubenas case and "we are able to do something".

The radio said the broadcast of the video of Aubenas following that visit raised the possibility that "the Syrian secret services have taken control of the group holding Florence Aubenas and want to use that card to throw French diplomacy into total embarrassment."

Le Figaro, the centre-right daily, noted that Julia and his team worked out of the Syrian capital Damascus during their failed freelance mission last September.

It, too, noted a "coincidence" in that that mission came to an unsuccessful end after France and the United States pushed the UN resolution against Syria, and hinted that Julia appeared to have been entirely relying on Syrian authorities throughout his venture.

For the France-Soir newspaper, "Didier Julia has always tapped his Syrian friendships for his actions in the region."

© AFP (combined reports)

Subject: French News

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