Islamic extremists, citing assurances of an impending change in France’s policy toward the Middle East, freed two French hostages in West Beirut on Friday.
Jean-Louis Normandin, 36, a television lighting technician, and Roger Auque, 31, a free-lance photographer, were released from separate cars outside the seaside Summerland Hotel, about 50 yards from waiting French Embassy officials and Syrian secret servicemen. The cars sped away quickly and the two men were rushed to the French Embassy in Christian East Beirut in bulletproof vehicles, with journalists and photographers racing behind.
Normandin later told ABC News he was imprisoned with two Americans.
“I was with two Americans--Joseph Cicippio and Edward Tracy--since the 12th of February,” he said. He gave no indication as to whether the kidnapers planned to release the Americans.
Cicippio, 57, of Norristown, Pa., was acting comptroller at the American University in Beirut when he was kidnaped Sept. 12, 1986. Tracy, 57, a writer from Rutland, Vt., disappeared the following month. The Revolutionary Justice Organization claimed to have abducted both men.
Friday’s release still left more than 20 foreign hostages, including eight Americans and four Frenchmen, presumably in the hands of Muslim Shia organizations in Beirut.
News of the release was greeted with a good deal of excitement in France. President Francois Mitterrand, in a message to Normandin and Auque, said: “The French people, who have not forgotten the trial of our hostages in Lebanon, learned of your release with emotion. . . . I want to say I share your joy. My thoughts also go to our compatriots who are not yet free. . . .”
‘At a Dead Point’
There was no word, official or unofficial, about what, if anything, France did to arrange the men’s release with the pro-Iranian group of Shia Muslim Lebanese that calls itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization. They were freed only a week after the French minister of foreign affairs, Jean-Bernard Raimond, insisted that France’s policy of pursuing normal relations with Iran was “at a dead point.”
The Revolutionary Justice Organization, in announcing Thursday that it would free the two Frenchmen, said it was doing so “after having received assurances of the desire of the French government to change its Middle East policies.” The organization added that it took the action also “to reply positively to mediation and to the wishes of certain militant friends.”
Normandin had been held more than 20 months, Auque for more than 11 months. The Revolutionary Justice Organization had proclaimed its responsibility for Normandin’s kidnaping, but no organization claimed Auque’s abduction, and there was some confusion about who had been holding him. Auque told reporters at the Summerland Hotel: “I was with the Palestinians. Some are fighters, but others are terrorists.”
Normandin, clean-shaven in a white T-shirt and blue jeans, talked by telephone with the three other members of the Antenne-2 television crew kidnaped with him on March 8, 1986. The others were released in 1986.
While a nationwide television audience watched their happy reaction to his release, Normandin told his old comrades his captivity had been “tough until the very end.”
Auque, bearded and looking somewhat haggard in a yellow sweater, said he had been held at gunpoint in a windowless room for most of the time since he was kidnaped last Jan. 13. “I spent days without food and water,” he said, but he added: “I am OK. Everything is fine now.”
Several of the seven French hostages released in the past were taken by Syrian security officers to Damascus for a Syrian government transfer to the French government. Sources in Damascus told the Associated Press that this also would be the case with Normandin and Auque, but it could not be confirmed.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said the United States welcomed the release of any hostage, “but there are lots of other hostages in captivity.”
“All of these people are innocent,” he said, “and ought to be released immediately, and anyone who has the ability to do that should get with it.”
Exact Number Uncertain
The count of foreign hostages is confused somewhat by unconfirmed reports of executions and because no group has acknowledged the abduction of Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite, who disappeared Jan. 20 while trying to negotiate the release of hostages.
The eight American hostages include Terry Anderson, 40, chief correspondent for the Associated Press in the Middle East, who was kidnaped on March 16, 1985. No foreign hostage has been held longer.
The Islamic Jihad (Holy War), a group of militant, Lebanese Shia Muslims, has acknowledged kidnaping Anderson and also claimed the abduction of the four Frenchmen still missing in Lebanon: Marcel Fontaine, 44, vice consul of the French Embassy in Beirut; Marcel Carton, 63, protocol officer at the embassy; Michel Seurat, 39, a researcher, and Jean-Paul Kauffman, 42, a journalist.
Islamic Jihad said in March, 1986, that Seurat had been executed, but his body has not been found.
French leaders have long assumed that the good will of Iran was needed to persuade a group such as the Revolutionary Justice Organization to release any hostage. That assumption was shared by American officials and led eventually to the Reagan Administration’s secret sale of arms to Iran in the hope of gaining freedom for American hostages.
Any chance of a French-Iranian reconciliation appeared quashed last July, when an Iranian official in Paris refused to leave the embassy to answer a magistrate’s questions about the bombings that terrorized Paris in the fall of 1986. France broke off diplomatic relations with Iran, and French police still surround the Iranian Embassy in Paris to keep the Iranian from slipping out.
There had been no recent sign of a reconciliation effort, but Alexandre Stephani, a 45-year-old Corsican businessman described in the French press as both a Ministry of Defense official and a close friend of Minister of Interior Charles Pasqua, has been traveling throughout the Middle East on what seemed to be a mediation mission.
The Revolutionary Justice Organization, in its communique Thursday, described Stephani as an emissary with whom it was ready to discuss the impending release of the hostages.
Le Monde, the authoritative Paris newspaper, reported that the government had known for several weeks that one or more hostages might be released.