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French Storm Cave, Free 23 Hostages in New Caledonia

Times Staff Writer

French security forces freed 23 French hostages in an assault on a remote jungle cave today after a 14-day drama that threw this South Pacific island territory into one of its worst political crises, government officials announced here.

Bernard Pons, France’s minister for territorial affairs, announced early today that “an intervention” had begun at the cave on the remote island of Ouvea, where 22 French gendarmes and one French territorial magistrate had been held by an estimated 15 armed Melanesian separatists.

All 23 hostages, the government said, were freed unharmed. The government made no comment on the condition of the separatist captors, members of an extreme left-wing faction, the Kanak United Liberation Front. Pons did say, however, that three French paramilitary troopers involved in the assault were wounded, one seriously.

Wire services, quoting French police sources, said that several of the militants were killed in the assault, including the presumed ringleader.

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The operation to free the hostages lasted several hours and finished shortly after noon, a French paramilitary spokesman told United Press International. A French paramilitary force of about 300 men had surrounded the cave in a thickly overgrown part of the coral atoll for the last 10 days.

Pons flew to Ouvea to meet the freed hostages, the spokesman added.

The reaction in New Caledonia’s countryside, where European settlers continue to fear separatist violence despite the freeing of the hostages, was one of suspicion rather than celebration.

One French truck driver, who asked not to be named, said it was “too much of a coincidence” that the gendarmes held hostage in New Caledonia were released at almost the same time as were the final three French hostages held by Muslim extremists in Beirut, Lebanon.

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“I wonder, was it all theater from the beginning?” the driver said, suggesting that the hostage drama may have been invented by territorial authorities to influence the upcoming French presidential election.

New Caledonia has become an issue in the French campaign, which wraps up Sunday when Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and Premier Jacques Chirac face off in a runoff election.

Of New Caledonia’s 145,000 inhabitants, 43% are native Melanesians. European settlers make up 36% of the population, with the rest Asian and Polynesian.

The Melanesians, who call themselves Kanaks, are seeking independence for New Caledonia from France, but their demand is bitterly opposed by the Europeans here.

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In several towns outside Noumea, where armed French loyalists have been at a standoff with armed Melanesian separatists since the hostage drama began, there were fears of continued violence timed to coincide with Sunday’s election.

“Wait a minute,” the owner of one cafe in the remote town of Voh said when he heard of the release on the 2 p.m. radio news here, “the story is not yet over.”

The hostages were taken prisoner in stages after an April 22 raid by separatists on a police outpost on the island of Ouvea, in which three gendarmes were hacked to death and a fourth shot and killed.

The 23 hostages included the magistrate and the head of an elite French anti-terrorist unit. The two men were seized last week while attempting to open negotiations with the Kanaks to free the other hostages.

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The militants holding the hostages had demanded that French troops be removed from Ouvea and that a mediator be sent to arrange a referendum on independence for New Caledonia. They also demanded nullification of first-round presidential balloting, which took place amid scattered violence April 24.

The kidnapers had warned Wednesday that the lives of the hostages would be endangered if any rescue attempt were made.

The Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front, the umbrella Melanesian separatist organization, had said Wednesday that French security forces were preparing a “large operation” against the coral grotto on Ouvea where the hostages were held. It said it could not answer for their safety if a rescue attempt were made.

Before the hostages were freed, the separatist coalition said it “had always guaranteed the lives of the prisoners as long as the French government remained willing to find a peaceful solution to the situation on Ouvea.”

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