France announced Tuesday that it is withdrawing its 45 truce observers from Beirut effective immediately.
It said the unit, which lost nine men during a two-year tour of duty, no longer could carry out its mission and will be sent home.
The French External Relations Ministry denied that the abrupt decision to withdraw the observers is part of a diplomatic effort to free French captives from Muslim kidnapers.
Extremists holding four of eight Frenchmen missing in Lebanon demanded March 14 that the French end their “bald-faced interference” and withdraw their military units from Lebanon, which France ruled until 1943.
One of the French observers, Capt. Marc-Antoine Corvee, 39, was slain by a sniper the same day at the strip of land that divides Beirut into Christian and Muslim sectors.
Corvee was the ninth French observer slain since the team was deployed in and around the capital in March, 1984, to monitor cease-fires in Lebanon’s 11-year-old civil conflict.
The withdrawal coincides with increasing Christian-Muslim conflict across the so-called Green Line that divides Christian and Muslim sectors of the city.
On Tuesday, sources at the American University of Beirut said that two British teachers at the school are missing and believed kidnaped. They were identified as Leigh Douglas, 34, a political science professor, and Philip Hatfield, director of the university’s International Language Center.
The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the men were last seen Friday evening at a nightspot in Muslim West Beirut.
Lebanon in Accord
France announced that the decision to withdraw from Lebanon was made in full agreement with Lebanese authorities.
“These observers have accomplished for two years, at the cost of the greatest sacrifice, an efficient action appreciated by all the parties,” the External Relations Ministry in Paris declared in a statement.
A French naval transport, the Ouragan, was ordered to sail to Lebanon to evacuate the soldiers and their equipment.
The French pullout began at 8 a.m. Tuesday. The white-helmeted observers grinned and waved as they carried their gear from five sandbagged positions. The observers, from all branches of the French armed forces, carried only sidearms and were not allowed to intervene directly in fighting.
Their commander, Col. Pierre Evon, joked with officers of the Shia Muslim militia Amal, which will take over the French post on the 35th floor of the 40-story Murr Tower, a gaunt, unfinished skyscraper that dominates the Beirut dividing line.
The French also evacuated the Rizk Tower in Christian East Beirut and a hilltop position near the palace of Amin Gemayel, the Maronite Christian president of Lebanon, five miles east of the capital in Baabda.
They dismantled checkpoints at either end of the Museum Crossing, which intersects the dividing line near their headquarters in the former French ambassador’s residence known as the Palais des Pins.
But a last-minute snag prevented a French observer force from completing its withdrawal from Beirut.
“We’re not leaving so soon because we have a problem, and that is the ambassador’s (former) residence. We don’t know who to give it to,” a French diplomat told reporters.
“Our job is definitely finished,” one French officer said earlier as he emerged cautiously into the street from the group’s headquarters as sniper fire cracked overhead.
“Things are probably not going to improve around here.”