PARIS — Two Frenchmen freed by Shia Muslim kidnapers after months of captivity in Lebanon were welcomed home Tuesday by Premier Jacques Chirac as his government thanked Syria for helping arrange the release.
In an emotional scene at Orly Airport outside Paris, Chirac pledged that his government will "do everything in its power compatible with honor and the dignity of France" to gain the release of the five remaining French hostages in Lebanon.
Chirac thanked officials of Syria, Saudi Arabia and Algeria for their help in obtaining the release of the two French businessmen, Camille Sontag, 85, and Marcel Coudari, 54.
The French Foreign Ministry, in a statement a few hours earlier, had singled out Syria for effusive praise--an ironic turn since France had joined 11 members of the European Communities only a day before in imposing sanctions on Syria for what was termed "absolutely unacceptable" behavior in the abortive attempt to blow up an Israeli airliner last April in London.
The praise for Syria was echoed by one of the hostages. Coudari told a radio reporter, "I can tell you that the collaboration that now exists between the government of Chirac and Syria is absolutely fantastic."
Coudari, when asked if he had news of the other French hostages remaining in Lebanon, replied, "I can tell you that things will happen soon." Asked if he was certain, Coudari said: "Well, yes, more or less, more or less."
Chirac embraced the elderly Sontag, who seemed to have difficulty walking, and shook hands enthusiastically with Coudari. Sontag had been held for six months and Coudari for nine.
Blanche Sontag, 84, hugged her husband and said, "I do not have the words to express the depth of my joy."
In a public statement addressed to the two former hostages, President Francois Mitterrand said simply, "I rejoice in your liberation and in this moment when you are going to rejoin your country, your family and those who are dear to you."
Released Monday Night
The two were released by their captors, a group that calls itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization, to Syrian officials in Beirut on Monday night, but it was not until they showed up at the Syrian Foreign Ministry in Damascus on Tuesday morning that French officials knew for sure which hostages had been released.
From the Syrian Foreign Ministry, the French officials and the two former hostages were taken to the Damascus airport and flown by French government plane from Damascus to Paris.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh handed the liberated hostages over to French officials and said that unspecified changes in France's Middle East policy had played an important role in securing their release.
"The Syrian government has helped in obtaining the release of the French hostages," Shareh said. "But we must underline the fact that France's policies played an even more important role in this case than what Syria has done."
Stung by Allegations
Shareh, clearly stung by what Syria says is a campaign by Britain, the United States and Israel to depict that country as a sponsor of terrorism, said at the Damascus ceremony: "The Syrian government wants good relations with all countries. But countries who show hostility to Syria should expect the same hostility from Syria."
In a television interview, French External Relations Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond insisted that France had obtained the release of the two hostages "without any bargaining, without any shipment of arms, without any offers of financial help."
He would not elaborate except to say that France has "kept its contacts with all the states that could have influence on the kidnapers." He said France intends to continue its "permanent dialogue" with both Syria and Iran.
It has been widely assumed in the French press that Iran has the most influence on the Shia Muslim extremists in Lebanon and that the key to the release of the Frenchmen was the agreement recently reached with Iran to settle a long dispute over repayment of a billion-dollar loan made to France by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran before he was deposed in 1979.
Press Critical of Chirac
The press here has been critical of Chirac's eagerness to settle the dispute with Iran. "What price will Iran ask to negotiate the future of the other detained Frenchmen?" Le Monde asked Tuesday in a front-page editorial. "Brutally, that question cannot be sidestepped."
Raimond announced that he and the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, intend to sign their agreement on loan repayment in a few days and that France would pay $330 million, about a third of what is due. Under questioning on television, Raimond rejected any link between the agreement and the possible release of other hostages. But he said, "We are convinced that Monsieur Velayati is a man of his word who will help us."