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France Gives Syria Credit as 2 of Its Hostages Return : Didn't Deal for Release, Paris Says

November 11, 1986|From Times Wire Services

PARIS — Two Frenchmen freed by Shia Muslim kidnapers in Lebanon after months of captivity arrived home today and were greeted by Premier Jacques Chirac, who thanked Syria for helping to arrange their release.

Foreign Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond said France had not bargained for the pair's freedom but got them out through a "completely dignified policy" of contacts with Middle Eastern governments.

Camille Sontag, 85, a retired car dealer, and businessman Marcel Coudari, 54, were released in Muslim West Beirut on Monday night to Syrian army officers. They were taken to the Syrian capital, Damascus, where they were turned over to French envoys.

The former captives of the Revolutionary Justice Organization were flown today from Damascus to Paris aboard a special French plane.

At Orly airport outside Paris, Coudari indicated that the other French hostages may soon be released. Asked whether he had news of them, he replied, "No, but I can tell you that things will happen soon."

Asked if he was certain, Coudari said, "Well, yes, more or less, more or less."

The elderly Sontag came down the steps of the French jet into the arms of his 84-year-old wife, and they hugged and kissed as Chirac beamed at them.

Blanche Sontag then fumbled in her handbag and handed a small object to her husband--apparently a replacement for the hearing aid that was broken during his abduction.

Underground Prison

"I would like to thank those who permitted this liberation, including the governments, the authorities of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Algeria," Chirac said without elaboration.

At the Syrian Foreign Ministry in Damascus, Coudari said earlier today that Sontag had been held with an unidentified Irishman and four other Western captives in an underground prison in Beirut. Brian Keenan, a teacher missing since last spring, is the only Irishman missing in Lebanon. Coudari said Sontag did not know if Americans were among the other prisoners.

The two Frenchmen were treated "very well" by their captors and were held separately in what they believed was south Beirut, Coudari said.

Coudari, missing since February, chain-smoked American cigarettes, talking constantly in Arabic with Syrian officials.

"It was very scary," he said. "I was frightened a lot of the time."

Sontag, who lived in Beirut for 40 years, sat quietly at the Foreign Ministry, saying nothing and slowly wringing his hands on his lap. He appeared well, but confused.

17 Foreigners Still Missing

In Paris, the French government issued a statement thanking Syria.

"The government, which rejoices very greatly over this happy outcome and thanks the Syrian authorities for the part they have played in it, continues the effort it has undertaken since its formation with a view to the quickest possible release of our other countrymen still detained," the French Foreign Ministry said.

Seventeen foreigners, including six Americans and six Frenchmen, remain missing in Lebanon, and various groups have claimed responsibility for the abductions. The most recent previous release was that of American David Jacobsen, who was freed Nov. 2 by Islamic Jihad, another pro-Iranian Shia Muslim group.

During the ceremonies in Damascus in which the two former captives were turned over to French diplomats, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh said, "We've done everything we could do to get the release of the hostages and will continue to do so."

Speaking a day after Common Market countries, including France, imposed sanctions on Damascus for allegedly sponsoring terrorism, Shareh declared: "The Syrian government wants good relations with all countries. But those countries who show hostility to Syria should expect the same hostility from Syria."

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