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Hostage Rescue Effort Sparks Controversy in France - 2004-10-05


French President Jacques Chirac appealed for unity Tuesday, as a bungled attempt to rescue two French hostages in Iraq sparked a growing controversy that some fear could hurt efforts to get the men freed. A French politician who was one of the leaders of the failed mission is back in France - and trying to explain his actions.

Member of parliament Didier Julia told French radio he has nothing to hide. Mr. Julia said he is prepared to disclose to the French parliament all the information he gathered during his failed rescue mission to Syria. He expressed no regret for his effort, and denounced those who criticized it.

Mr. Julia, a member of President Chirac's UMP party, worked through Middle Eastern and African contacts to try to get French reporters Christian Chesnot and George Malbrunot released. The two reporters were taken hostage in mid-August by a shadowy extremist group, the Islamic Army in Iraq. The French government claimed it had made indirect contact with the group and that the two men seemed to be alive and in good health.

But critics say rather than helping the hostages, Mr. Julia may have compromised their safety. His mission is reported to have failed when a convoy he had been told would carry the hostages to Syria either never got organized or stopped when it was fired on, perhaps by coalition forces.

Meanwhile, the French government, which originally distanced itself completely from Mr. Julia's effort, has acknowledged that it was aware of his mission, although it did not support it. Opposition politicians, like Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande, want a full accounting of the affair.

Mr. Hollande told French radio that Mr. Chirac's party should punish Mr. Julia for his actions.

Questions have also been raised about the Syrian government role in the botched rescue attempt, as well as the role of Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, who is reported to have lent Mr. Julia a private airplane to fly to Damascus.

In addition, some commentators say the ongoing hostage crisis underscores the limits of French foreign policy in the Middle East. Despite close relations with many Arab countries, its anti-Iraq war stance, and an extensive diplomatic effort, France has yet to secure the release of the two French hostages - who spent their 47th day in captivity Tuesday.

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