DAMASCUS, Syria — Two Frenchmen freed by Lebanese kidnapers offered intriguing clues Tuesday about the fate of other Westerners missing in Lebanon, raising hopes that an Irishman not heard from in seven months is alive in captivity.
But Marcel Coudari, 54, also indicated he believes one of his countrymen, Michel Seurat, has died in captivity.
Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), a pro-Iranian Shia Muslim group, claimed March 5 to have killed Seurat. Coudari and Camille Sontag, 85, were freed Monday after another pro-Iranian Shia group, the Revolutionary Justice Organization, announced it would free some French hostages.
Coudari, speaking to reporters for the partially deaf Sontag before the pair was released to French envoys by the Syrians, said he believes Seurat was not slain but died in captivity after March 5.
'Allowed to Read Books'
"I don't think it's true that they killed Seurat when they said they did," he said. "We were allowed to read books in captivity and one of the books I was given had written in it: 'I am Michel Seurat,' and dated April 5. That's after the date they said they murdered him.
"I believe he died of natural causes later."
He declined to elaborate. Asked whether Seurat had suffered a heart attack, he nodded his head silently.
Coudari's remarks supported the belief that the various Shia factions in Lebanon who claim to have kidnaped Westerners are intermingled. More than a dozen foreigners, including five Frenchmen and five Americans, remain captives in Lebanon.
Coudari was held by the Revolutionary Justice Organization, while Seurat and some of the other Frenchmen and Americans were taken captive by Islamic Jihad.
Sontag was held with five other Westerners in an underground prison in the Shia stronghold of south Beirut, Coudari said. Sontag apparently did not know the names of the other captives.
'Held in Separate Cells'
"They were held in separate cells," Coudari said. "They could see each other but were not allowed to talk.
"When they took Sontag out of his cell Monday to free him, one of the men slipped him a piece of paper on which he had written 'I am Irish. Please tell my family,' " Coudari said.
There is only one Irishman known to be missing in Lebanon, Brian Keenan, 35, from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Keenan, an English teacher at the American University of Beirut, was kidnaped April 11. He had not been heard of since, and no group has claimed to hold him or made any demands for his release. The silence had raised fears for his life.
Coudari said he has information on other French hostages, "but I won't reveal it in public since we're out and the others are still in great danger."
Sontag and Coudari were held separately and met only as they were being freed Monday night, Coudari said. They were turned over to the Syrian army in West Beirut and taken to Damascus.
Sontag was "100% sure he was held by Shias, although they tried to fool him by pretending they were Christians by using names like Philippe and Jean," Coudari said.
Longtime Lebanon Resident
Although a French citizen, Sontag lived in Lebanon for 40 years and speaks Arabic.
Both men said they had been treated well. Coudari said Sontag's prison was "very modern and comfortable with water, air conditioning and clean baths."
Asked if he would return to Beirut, Coudari said: "Of course. I've spent all my life in Lebanon. I thought everyone there was my friend. I imagined that if all of Lebanon was kidnaped, no one would kidnap me."
But the white-haired Sontag, who sat nearby while Coudari spoke, became very agitated when asked if he would go back to Beirut.
"Beirut? Me? Never!" he shouted. "I don't want to get kidnaped again. When I find my wife I'll tell her to sell everything, the house, everything.
"I have a studio in Antibes and all I need is my furniture to live there."