French government silent on Aubenas release terms
PARIS, June 13 (AFP) - The French government Monday evaded questions from the media over the weekend release of a French journalist and her Iraqi interpreter who had been held in Iraq for more than five months, leaving many to speculate a ransom may have been paid.
Newspapers and broadcasts were dominated by the repatriation Sunday of Florence Aubenas, a 44-year-old senior correspondent for the Liberation newspaper, who was freed in Baghdad on Saturday along with her Iraqi interpreter, Hussein Hanun.
But images of her emotional family reunion in Paris were overshadowed by many unanswered questions: Who kidnapped Aubenas and Hanun? How were the two freed? What did they endure? Was a ransom paid?
The newspaper Le Monde said “mystery surrounds the liberation of Florence Aubenas and Hussein Hanun”, while Liberation gave 20 pages to the drama that delved into its various aspects without coming up with firm answers.
President Jacques Chirac and other officials said their release owed much to a high-profile public campaign of support and to a behind-the-scenes operation by intelligence and military services.
But Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, who met with the freed reporter in Cyprus to bring her back to Paris on an air force jet, said Monday no details would be forthcoming out of concern for the safety of other people he said were held hostage in the same place as Aubenas was kept.
“You’ll understand I can say absolutely nothing about that,” he told RTL radio.
“Out of respect for the safety of these people, there are things that cannot be talked about.”
There are believed to be more than 20 foreign hostages still in Iraq, including citizens of Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Japan, Jordan, the Philippines, Turkey and the United States.
Aubenas herself on Sunday kept to a few brief comments to the media shortly after her arrival, saying her conditions in captivity had been “severe” with her hands and feet bound and a blindfold over her eyes.
Before being taken off for a debriefing by the French DGSE foreign intelligence service, she said she would give a full account at a media conference at her newspaper’s offices on Tuesday.
The government sought to end speculation that it paid to secure her release, with spokesman Jean-Francois Cope saying Sunday: “There was absolutely no demand for money. No ransom was paid.”
But leading newspapers were unconvinced. Liberation noted the government denial but countered by saying “common sense says there is no release without something in return and common sense obviously is not wrong.”
It added: “The truth is that, beyond the president of the republic and a few of his collaborators, nobody knows (and probably will never know with certainty) what were the terms that returned Florence and Hussein to freedom.”
A country’s government may also give compensation “not necessarily in financial form” to avoid the ultimately counterproductive perception that it would systematically pay for the return of its citizens, the paper said.
Serge July, the chief editor of Liberation, did not identify the kidnappers, but spoke of rampant “organised crime” in Iraq, where hostage-takers now “know the price of journalists, and especially that of French journalists.”
Le Monde ran an interview with Hanun, who returned home to his family in Baghdad. In it, the Iraqi said he and Aubenas had been “well treated during our detention” but he was unable to identify the hostage-takers.
“All I know is that they are Sunnis and Salafists (fundamentalist Muslims)” who opposed the US occupation of Iraq, he said.
Douste-Blazy’s predecessor as foreign minister, Michel Barnier, confirmed Monday reports from Bucharest that Aubenas had been held in company with three Romanian journalists for part of the time – something she had denied on her return to France – but said it was not known if one group had kidnapped them all or two groups were sharing a prison.
The only time the French public saw Aubenas during her captivity was March 1, when a video was released of her looking gaunt and desperate and pleading for help.
In the video, she made a direct appeal to a renegade lawmaker in Chirac’s ruling party, Didier Julia, who headed up an unofficial negotiation team that worked in parallel with government efforts to free two other French reporters taken hostage who were finally released in December.
Liberation said Julia, who has links to Syria, “had nothing to do” with Aubenas’s release, but it and other newspapers asked what role he might have played to be named in the video.
An unnamed French-Iraqi man with ties to Julia was quoted by Liberation as saying he paid EUR 50,000 (USD 60,000) to obtain the video, without specifying whether he simply bought it or ordered it made.
Julia on Sunday expressed pleasure at Aubenas’s release and said “I did not interfere in this matter.”
Subject: French News