France says it cut no deal with Iraq on its hostages


PARIS -- French government officials promised yesterday that no negotiations had occurred between Paris and Baghdad to bring about Iraq's release of all its French hostages and pledged that France would continue to back United Nations resolutions to end the Iraqi takeover of Kuwait.

Analysts said the Iraqi move, however, placed France in the position of eventual mediator if a diplomatic solution to the Persian Gulf standoff seemed likely.

France "cannot but express satisfaction at a unilateral decision which it neither sought nor tried to negotiate, [but] which brings its people home," Prime Minister Michel Rocard told the National Assembly.

He added that "France does not in any way intend to breach international solidarity over respect for human rights and for the liberation of all foreign hostages and, at the same time, for the liberation of Kuwait."

The return here of 327 French hostages being held in Kuwait and Baghdad appeared likely before Sunday. Iraqi Ambassador Abdul Razzak al-Hachimi said French government officials would not have to visit Baghdad to arrange the release.

"It is not a condition. But it would be better for the French citizens if a French official could receive them and take charge of them," Mr. al-Hachimi told reporters at the Foreign Ministry.

He also backed French government assertions that there had been no back-room negotiations to win freedom for the French hostages. "There were no negotiations between France and Iraq for the liberation," he said.

France's sensitivity to the question is largely based on accusations in earlier years of secret deals to gain the release of French hostages in Lebanon. This time, however, no similar charges have been made.

The promised release is being portrayed here as an attempt to single France out from the United States and Britain and to splinter the Western front against Iraq.

"Rarely has a gift been so poisonous, favor so embarrassing, regard so inopportune," the newspaper Le Monde said in an editorial. "The Iraqi maneuver, as clear as it is coarse, still aims for the same goal: to drive a wedge in the community of nations in league against the master of Baghdad."

"It won't change the French position on the main questions of a withdrawal from Kuwait and the release of all foreign hostages, but it will put France in a position to negotiate if the occasion arises," said one French diplomatic analyst.

"Now, the Americans know the French are in a position to play a role if it's a matter of finding a diplomatic opening," he said.

In an interview with the Algerian News weekly, the Iraqi leader explained his decision to release the French hostages as an attempt to set France apart from the United States, although he did not specify to what end.

"It is in our interest that there be in Europe a country that is able to take some distance from American policies," Mr. Hussein reportedly said.

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