The cave where separatist Melanesian tribesmen took 23 French hostages at gunpoint 12 days ago is a sacred place, where each leaf has a special meaning, where not even the tribe’s women are allowed to enter, where warriors killed a century ago lie buried.
And as one of the world’s most bizarre and remote hostage dramas ended Thursday, the cave once again became a place of war--and of death.
A total of 15 of the heavily armed Melanesians holding the hostages were killed, along with two French gendarmes, when 60 elite French commandos stormed the site and engaged in a seven-hour battle. All 23 hostages, among them the head of France’s elite anti-terrorist squad, escaped unharmed.
French authorities described the assault as the only alternative after negotiations for the release grew fruitless and the hostages “made clear they were terribly afraid of being massacred.”
Bernard Pons, France’s Cabinet minister for territorial affairs, declared at a news conference that the mission, code-named “Operation Victor,” was proof of Paris’ policy that “there will be no dialogue with terrorists or kidnapers.”
“There was a determined wish on the part of a few people who felt that by any form of violence, anything can be achieved. That has been proven wrong,” Pons said.
The hostage crisis began April 22, when the separatists took over a remote police station on Ouvea Island, 125 miles from Noumea. Later, they herded their hostages into the sacred cave, and French authorities sealed off the island.
In an interview with The Times, police Capt. Philippe Legorjus, the head of France’s counterterrorism unit who was himself taken hostage several days after the police station was overrun, offered a detailed version of the assault.
Legorjus, who said he would have preferred a political solution to the crisis, stressed that French President Francois Mitterrand personally approved the decision to storm the cave. Mitterrand had previously expressed qualified support for the Melanesian militants’ campaign for independence.
On Chirac’s Orders
Legorjus said French Premier Jacques Chirac, who is challenging Mitterrand in the French presidential elections, wanted to stage the assault several days ago. And Pons said that he had acted throughout the drama on the orders of Chirac, who believes the separatist movement should be outlawed.
Pons insisted that politics had nothing to do with the decision to use force. But the prolonged hostage crisis had been seen by many as an embarrassment to Chirac.
At one point, according to Legorjus, military strategists were considering using 250-pound bombs or laser-guided missiles against the cave, which was surrounded by thick jungle and guarded by at least 11 armed separatists.
“But President Mitterrand favored a political solution,” he said in the interview. “If no solution could be found, Mr. Mitterrand wanted to enter the cave on May 9--the day after the election. But, in the end, we realized there really was no point in waiting.”
Legorjus said he became convinced during his captivity that military force would be inevitable because of “the madness” of the kidnapers’ leader, Alfonse Bianou, a former Roman Catholic seminary student who kept in his hands the bloodied ax used to kill three gendarmes during the initial attack last month. Bianou was among those killed in the assault.
“We talked about religion for more than two hours one night,” Legorjus recalled. “He went on about the horizontal and vertical dimensions--about the sons and fathers and things like that. It was all very strange.”
The cave itself held strange qualities as well, said Legorjus, who was seized April 27 while negotiating for the gendarmes’ release.
“Each and every leaf of each and every tree in there was sacred to them,” recalled the captain, who has solved at least half a dozen celebrated hostage and terrorist cases in France and elsewhere.
“It had deep mystical significance to the kidnapers,” he said. ". . . The cave is a burial ground, really--the final resting place for warriors who were killed in the tribe’s ancient battles.”
While held captive, Legorjus began plotting a possible escape for himself and the other hostages. On April 29, two days after he was seized, he returned from another negotiating session with government representatives and secretly slipped two .38-caliber Smith & Wesson pistols and keys to the captors’ handcuffs that he had obtained into a rucksack that one kidnaper had left outside the cave.
“The kidnapers actually smuggled them into the cave themselves but didn’t know it,” he said. It was believed that possession of the pistols and keys made it possible for the hostages to escape unharmed.
Pons and Legorjus offered this version of the end to the crisis:
When the assault began, Legorjus was outside the cave. He and five men inside knew the details of the government plan, but the kidnapers were completely surprised, Pons said.
Puma military helicopters began hovering over the cave just after 6 a.m. Thursday local time to drown out the footsteps of the 60 commandos who were moving into position near the entrance.
When the shooting started, Legorjus began firing as well. Most of the deaths occurred during the initial gun battle, which Pons and Legorjus said lasted about one hour.
The hostages, meanwhile, had managed to retreat unguarded into the rear of the cave, where they knew there was a secret chimney-like escape route. The route was guarded at the top, however.
When the shooting subsided outside, three kidnapers also tried to retreat, but a hostage shot and killed one of them with one of the smuggled pistols. The others ran back to the cave’s entrance.
There was occasional sniper fire, Pons said, until military commanders decided to use smoke bombs and stun grenades to force the kidnapers out. More separatists were shot and killed in the salvo.
When gas from the smoke bombs began filling the cave, the hostages fled through the chimney to safety, authorities said.
Despite the bloodshed, Pons declared that it had proved “France is a democracy. At stake were the honor of France, the honor of the gendarmerie and the lives of the hostages.”
Lingering fears remain, however, that the bloodshed will prompt the separatist Melanesians to attempt retaliation.
In a statement issued hours after the operation had ended, the Kanak Socialist National Liberation Front issued a statement in Noumea calling on its supporters to mobilize against the government.
“The fight goes on,” the group’s “politburo” declared in a communique issued to the media.