France Bars ‘Jailer’ Role With Hostages
French officials said Thursday that they will not “substitute ourselves for the jailers” and would take over the 39 American hostages in Lebanon only if they were first freed unconditionally by their Muslim captors.
This stand by officials and in the press, reflecting uneasiness over the role thrust upon France by the hostage crisis in Beirut, may have snagged the negotiations between the French and Shia Muslim militia leader Nabih Berri. In Beirut, Berri reportedly said that his proposal to transfer the hostages to the French Embassy there, for holding until Israel frees Lebanese detainees, is no longer being considered.
The government, through both External Relations Minister Roland Dumas and an anonymous ministry spokesman, engaged in what seemed like confusing verbal contortions to try to dissociate itself from Berri, even while hinting at acceptance of his proposal to take over the 39 Americans still held hostage in the June 14 hijacking of a TWA airliner.
The French nonetheless insisted that if they accepted Berri’s proposal to take over the hostages, they would not act as jailers. Also--even though there were reports in Lebanon and Israel that the French had agreed to hold the hostages for two days while waiting for Israel to free 735 Lebanese prisoners, as demanded by Berri and the TWA hijackers--the French maintained that they would only take over the hostages “without conditions.”
Swiss Attitude Similar
The Swiss government expressed a similar attitude, announcing that it, too, is ready to accept custody of the hostage Americans but only without conditions. A communique from Bern said that Switzerland wants assurance that it could transport the hostages to Switzerland or some other country and set them free.
The clearest expression of uneasiness in France came from outside the government in an editorial in the influential newspaper Le Monde.
“All procedures that compromise a law-abiding nation, its representatives and its diplomats inside a lawless jungle are disastrous in the long run, no matter how happy the immediate results,” Le Monde said. “Even if everyone is brightened by the joy of liberation that everyone wants, it would be difficult to hide the fact that the arrangements that secured the freedom of the hostages had little glory.”
In a radio interview, the 62-year-old Dumas, a longtime friend of President Francois Mitterrand, said that “France cannot shirk its duty when it is a question of ending physical and moral suffering.”
But he insisted: “We cannot negotiate on a principle. The liberation of the hostages must be unconditional. We cannot enter into bargaining. We cannot put ourselves in the situation of substituting ourselves for the jailers.”
No ‘Illegal Operation’
Similar comments came from a External Relations Ministry spokesman who said, “France is ready to welcome liberated people, not hostages. We are not entering bargaining. We are not substituting ourselves for the jailers. The liberation must be unconditional. It is not a question of taking part in an illegal operation.”
In its editorial, Le Monde described comments like these as “words of wisdom.” But the editorial warned that, if the French government accepted the hostages, it would have difficulty following all the principles expressed by Dumas and his ministry spokesman.
“To accept the strange mission carries the risk of appearing to be the proxy of an outlaw, the receiver of goods that were acquired under revolting conditions and . . . the front man who lends his respectability to a gang of extortionists,” the newspaper said.
These doubts seemed to reflect a change of mood in Paris. On Wednesday, when Berri first proposed turning over the hostages to a Western embassy, particularly that of France or Switzerland, the French government seemed to seize the opportunity. There was some optimism that an end to the crisis might be in sight. But a day later, the implications of the proposed French role became more obvious, and the mood turned pessimistic.