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Thursday, 25 July, 2002, 17:44 GMT 18:44 UK
Mystery lingers over French hostage saga
President Chirac
Chirac denies caving in to Iran back in 1988

A heroic triumph of negotiating skill or a sordid affair of ransom and sleaze?

Fourteen years on, questions over the release of the hostages in Lebanon still cast a long shadow over French politics.

The sacking on 24 July of France's chief of foreign intelligence could be the latest twist in a murky episode that involves a tangle of rival conspiracy theories.

Some say the hostage-takers were secretly bought off and politicians pocketed part of the money - others say the country's spymasters helped spread false rumours to hurt President Chirac, who was prime minister at the time.

Secret talks

The story begins in the mid-1980s, when Lebanese guerrillas backed by Iran captured a number of Western hostages.

Lebanese Hezbollah fighters
Hezbollah guerrillas were among the hostage takers
Among them were nine Frenchmen - mostly diplomats and journalists - seized between March 1985 and January 1987.

Rumours surrounding negotiations between French officials and the guerrillas' Iranian patrons began in 1986.

In March of that year, the governing socialists were trying to secure the hostages' release a few days before parliamentary election - which they lost to Mr Chirac's conservatives.

A few months later, press reports said that during the campaign, Mr Chirac had sent envoys to Iran to scuttle the negotiations by making counter-offers to Tehran.

The accusations were flatly rejected by Mr Chirac - but they resurfaced in January of this year, when the socialist negotiator at the time said that while he was talking to Iranian officials Mr Chirac's men were "in the same building" outbidding him.

Demands

Mr Chirac's envoys say that they did not get involved in negotiations over the hostages until mid-1986 - well after the election.

Marcel Carton
Diplomat Marcel Carton was among the hostages

The Iranian's main demands are now known. They wanted the release of a number of Iranian detained in France on charges of terrorism.

They also wanted to renegotiate a $1bn loan from Iran to France, which Paris had stopped repaying when French assets were seized by Iran during the 1979 revolution.

Iran also demanded that France stopped favouring Iraq - then at war with Iran - in its arms sales.

With the names of the hostages reeled off at the beginning of TV bulletins every evening, month after month, the government was under tremendous pressure to get results.

The negotiations began to bear fruit in late 1987, when some hostages were released. The others - except for one who died in captivity - were freed in early 1988.

Mr Chirac's envoys say they used quiet persuasion to achieve this. They admitted discussing the loan dispute - which was mostly settled in 1991 - but have always denied allegations that a ransom was paid.

Quid-pro-quo?

But the rumours of a wider deal persisted.

Anis Naccache
Anis Naccache spent 10 years in a French jail
In 1987, the French authorities allowed Iranian diplomat Wahid Gordji - who was wanted in connection with a wave of terror attacks in France in 1986 - to leave the country.

In 1990 five Iranians - led by Anis Naccache - convicted ten years earlier of trying to kill former Iranian Prime Minister Chapur Bakhtiar were pardoned.

In the run-up to this year's elections, allegations regarding a ransom paid to the hostage takers emerged again.

A leaked secret service memo- quoting a mysterious source - said that $3m changed hand.

It also said that an aide to the then interior minister, Charles Pasqua, personally profited from the transaction.

Mr Pasqua has dismissed these accusations as both old and politically-motivated.

An investigation is under way.

Dismissals

Mr Chirac, for his part, is said to have been incensed by the allegations.

Former interior minister Charles Pasqua
Pasqua vowed to 'terrorise the terrorists'

Le Monde newspaper reported a month ago that the president believes France's intelligence chiefs approved illegal probes into the affair, under the socialist government defeated at the polls in June.

The head of the domestic counter-espionage agency, Jean-Jacques Pascal, stood down in early July.

The director of foreign intelligence Jean-Claude Cousseran, was replaced on Wednesday.

No explanations have been given.

It is not rare for a new French Government to appoint new spy chiefs.

But many commentators believe that the two men were the latest casualties in one of France's murkiest political sagas.

See also:

24 Jul 02 | Europe
17 Jun 02 | Europe
20 Mar 02 | Europe
08 Jan 02 | Europe
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