French MP to help Iraq hostage on his terms

3rd March 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 3 (AFP) - France was on Thursday mulling its options to free a reporter taken hostage in Iraq as one of its lawmakers with links to Iraqi insurgents infuriated authorities by putting conditions on his aid.

PARIS, March 3 (AFP) - France was on Thursday mulling its options to free a reporter taken hostage in Iraq as one of its lawmakers with links to Iraqi insurgents infuriated authorities by putting conditions on his aid.

Didier Julia, a maverick member of President Jacques Chirac's ruling UMP party, said in a statement to AFP that he stood ready to help efforts to free Florence Aubenas, a correspondent for France's newspaper Liberation - but only if a criminal investigation hanging over two of his assistants was lifted.

Aubenas, looking gaunt and desperate, made a plea for Julia to help free her in a video released by her unidentified abductors and broadcast Tuesday.

"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.

Her newspaper and French officials said it appeared the kidnappers had forced Aubenas to call out specifically for Julia, a 71-year-old Arabic-speaking former archaeologist with ties to members of Saddam Hussein's deposed regime who are believed to be active in the Iraqi insurgency.

Julia, in his statement to AFP, underlined that the video "contains a single and solitary demand: my mediation."

To ignore that would be "to run risks" with the lives of Aubenas and her Iraqi interpreter, Hussein Hanun al-Saadi, both of whom were taken after leaving their Baghdad hotel on January 5, he said.

But while he was "ready without any hesitation" to help, he stressed that he could not do so until legal action targeting him and his two assistants was lifted.

The assistants, Philippe Brett, a pro-Saddam lobbyist, and Philippe Evenno, a UMP party member, "know all my contacts in Iraq and also themselves have many other contacts in the country which are totally necessary for the mediation requested," he said.

The criminal investigation against the pair, and a preliminary judicial inquiry against the parliamentary deputy, stem from a mediation mission Julia and his team undertook last September to free two other French reporters taken hostage in Iraq.

The two reporters, who were eventually freed in December after four months of detention, lambasted Julia's venture - conducted independently of an official French mission - and said it had risked their lives by confusing their captors.

Brett and Evenno are being probed for jeopardising the reporters' lives and collaborating with "a foreign power" - taken to be Syria, which hosted Julia for the duration of his failed mission.

Julia told AFP he had spoken with intelligence officers from the foreign espionage service DGSE early Thursday.

That was in response to a request made the day before by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who told parliament: "The security of our compatriot and her guide are paramount, above all other considerations."

The 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 reference to 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.

But Le Figaro newspaper stressed Thursday that "only the appearance of the name of the very controversial Didier Julia gives that (theory) any substance" because of the lawmaker's known friendships with Syrian officials and lobbying on their behalf.

Aubenas's mother, Jacqueline Aubenas, said the obvious physical and mental distress of her daughter in the videos created "a total feeling of urgency" to do all to free her.

"We have to give her her life back. She has to come back quickly, quickly, quickly," she told Le Monde newspaper.


Subject: French News

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