France Tightens Security as Lebanon Policy Falters
Premier Jacques Chirac, faced with terrorist attacks against French targets both in France and abroad, tightened security throughout the country on Friday amid mounting signs that the carefully wrought but secretive French policy in Lebanon is coming apart.
In the latest crisis evidently linked to Lebanon and the Middle East, a bomb was placed under the seat of a suburban train in Paris on Thursday evening. The bomb’s fuse was activated during rush hour but failed to detonate 13 strips of plastic explosive. If the plastic had gone off, there might have been heavy loss of life in the Gare de Lyon station.
The train incident occurred in a hectic week that saw three French soldiers killed by a bomb in Lebanon and a dramatic renewal of the threat by the mysterious, pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War) to kill the French hostages it is holding in Lebanon.
The killing of the soldiers prompted the French government to call for an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council that could lead to withdrawal of French troops from the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon. The threat by Islamic Jihad produced two communiques from the French government that amount to an attempt to conduct a public dialogue with the kidnapers.
The hostages have become the overriding concern of Chirac’s Lebanon policy, and his government has made it clear that it is engaged in some kind of secret negotiations for their release. This week’s developments, however, seem to indicate that the negotiations have reached an impasse.
Group That Panicked Paris
Police officials believe that the attempted train bombing was the work of the same shadowy group that panicked Paris with a series of bombings at the beginning of the year. A new threat from the group came on Monday.
The earlier bombings killed two people and wounded more than 60. Government officials have said that the two dead were probably terrorists whose bomb exploded prematurely, but this has not been proved.
Although the communiques of the group, which calls itself the Committee of Solidarity with Arab and Middle Eastern Political Prisoners, demand the release of three prisoners jailed in France on terrorist charges, the bombings are also widely believed to be a form of pressure on the French government to make concessions to the kidnapers of the hostages.
Le Monde, the authoritative Paris newspaper, reported that the government was considering the release of one of the three prisoners, Georges Abdallah Ibrahim, who is regarded as the leader of a terrorist organization called the Revolutionary Lebanese Armed Forces. Abdallah Ibrahim, who has served two years of a four-year sentence for illegal possession of arms and for carrying false papers, is eligible for parole.
But he has been accused of complicity in the 1982 murder of Robert Charles Ray, a U.S. military attache. American officials, who were angered by what they regarded as a light sentence for Abdallah Ibrahim in the first place, would be enraged if he were released.
After the terrorist attempt to bomb the train, Chirac met with his top security officials late into the night. The session led to an unusual post-midnight communique saying that the government has reinforced its protection and surveillance of public places and that “the French could count on the diligent and determined action of the police forces.”
Video of French Hostage
Government officials were obviously perplexed earlier in the week when Islamic Jihad, regarded as a fundamentalist Islamic organization with ties to Iran, sent a video cassette of French hostage Jean-Paul Kauffmann and a communique to a television office in Beirut.
On the cassette, Kauffmann, a journalist, said that the hostages feared for their lives. The kidnapers, in the communique, threatened to kill their hostages unless two Iraqi dissidents, who had been deported by France earlier this year, were allowed to return to France. Islamic Jihad also demanded that France resist pressure from the United States to follow the U.S. lead on Middle East policy.
The communique drew two statements during the night Tuesday from the French Foreign Ministry, the first saying that the Iraqis were free to come back to France and the second that French policy is independent of U.S. policy.
French officials, who had congratulated themselves for quiet and careful negotiations that led to the release of two French hostages last June 20, obviously hoped that continued negotiations in the same manner might lead to the release of the remaining hostages.
But the pair of communiques from the Foreign Ministry made it clear that something had gone wrong. The ministry was trying to give the kidnapers public reassurance that had somehow not reached them privately.
Minister for External Relations Jean-Bernard Raimond insisted that negotiations are continuing. “Nothing allows me to think that the conversations that we are carrying out in the hostage affair have come up against insurmountable difficulties,” he told reporters Thursday. “These conversations are continuing in a normal way. . . . Nothing allows me to think that the process is not a good one. On the contrary, we have no reason not to have confidence in the people with whom we are speaking.” He did not reveal who they are.
The number of remaining hostages is not certain. Although seven kidnaped French citizens have not been released, Islamic Jihad announced the execution of one of them earlier this year. But his body was never found.
While the French government insists that it will not give in to blackmail by the kidnapers, the French have taken steps clearly designed to please the Iranian government, which is believed to have a good deal of influence on the Islamic Jihad. In the most dramatic move, the French forced Massoud Rajavi, a major opponent of the Iranian leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, to leave France earlier this year.
In a somewhat related way, the French government has hinted strongly that it may withdraw its 1,400 soldiers from the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. Iran opposes the use of the U.N. troops, contending that their presence prevents guerrillas from attacking Israel.
After 17 French soldiers were wounded in a clash with Shia Muslim militiamen in mid-August, the French demanded that the United Nations, in the words of Raimond, “shoulder all its responsibilities and ensure that the peacekeeping force carries out its mission correctly.” This was widely interpreted as a warning that the French would leave unless the security problems there were eased somehow.
Killed While Jogging
Although French officials obviously did not want to withdraw their soldiers abruptly in what might seem to be a cowardly retreat from danger, the government’s hand may have been forced by the bomb that killed the three French soldiers Thursday as they were jogging on a road.
Informed of the deaths, President Francois Mitterrand, calling for an emergency meeting of the Security Council, said, “I want the peacekeeping force to maintain its mission but as a stronger, better organized force. But it is necessary that we examine the conditions very carefully. There must be guarantees.”