PARIS — Extremist Muslim kidnapers, praising Premier Jacques Chirac for altering French policy in the Middle East, released French hostage Aurel Cornea in Beirut on Wednesday, calling their act "a Christmas good-will gesture."
The release of the 54-year-old television soundman, who had been kidnaped almost 10 months ago, came after French negotiators resumed talks in Tehran with Iranian negotiators about French repayment of an old billion-dollar loan.
In their statement praising Chirac, however, the kidnapers, a little known group of pro-Iranian Shia Muslims who call themselves the Revolutionary Justice Organization, did not link the release directly to the resumption of talks.
Gunmen in a black Mercedes-Benz let Cornea off on a street near the seafront in Muslim West Beirut at 6 p.m., a couple of hundred yards from the Beau Rivage Hotel where French diplomats, Iranian and Syrian representatives and a host of journalists were waiting for him. They had been told earlier by the kidnapers to expect the release of a hostage.
Two Lebanese militiamen accompanied Cornea to the hotel. Smiling but obviously exhausted, the bearded Cornea told reporters, "OK, I'm fine, I'm fine." He wore a red sweater and gray jacket and seemed to need help walking.
Before he could say anything else, French officials rushed him into a bulletproof car. French bodyguards, cocking their weapons, shouted and kept reporters away. After a few minutes delay, Syrian army intelligence officers, who make their headquarters near the hotel, gave the French diplomatic car permission to leave. The car took Cornea to the French Embassy compound in Christian-dominated East Beirut.
Joins Embassy Staff
Cornea phoned his wife, Aurora, in Paris and then joined the embassy staff in a Christmas Eve party. French officials plan to fly him to Paris today, where he will probably be welcomed by Chirac.
In Paris, Cornea's wife, who was interviewed on television, said, "My husband phoned from the French Embassy in Beirut, and he is very well."
Cornea was kidnaped with three other members of a team from Antenne-2, one of France's three government-owned television channels, on March 8 after they filmed a rally by Hezbollah (Party of God), an extreme, pro-Iranian Shia Muslim organization. Two other members of the team were released last June by the Revolutionary Justice Organization, which claimed responsibility for the kidnapings. The fourth television crewman, 34-year-old Jean-Louis Normandin, is still a captive.
The kidnapers released two other Frenchmen on Nov. 10 after France agreed to turn over $330 million to the Iranian government as part repayment of a $1 billion loan that had been made to France in 1974 by the late Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi five years before he was deposed. Talks about repayment of the rest of the loan began in Tehran on Tuesday.
The Revolutionary Justice organization also claims to be holding three Americans, Frank H. Reed, 53, director of Lebanese International School in West Beirut; Joseph J. Cicippio, 56, acting controller of American University of Beirut and Edward A. Tracy, 56, a private businessman.
Another, better-known Shia extremist organization, Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), claims to hold three other kidnaped Frenchmen. Islamic Jihad has said it executed a fourth Frenchman, researcher Michel Seurat, but his body has not been found.
Islamic Jihad also claims to be holding two American hostages. They are Terry A. Anderson, 39, chief Mideast correspondent for the Associated Press, and Thomas Sutherland, dean of the school of agriculture at the American University of Beirut. Islamic Jihad said it killed two American hostages, William Buckley, a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut and Peter Kilburn, a librarian at American University of Beirut.
In all, 15 kidnaped foreigners are still held by various extremist organizations in Lebanon, most with ties to Iran. It is widely believed that the secret arrangements by the Reagan Administration to sell arms to Iran during the last year were aimed at facilitating release of the Americans.
In a statement delivered to foreign news agencies in Beirut early Wednesday, the Revolutionary Justice Organization said, "We feel that . . . Jacques Chirac has corrected some of the past mistakes of his predecessors."
But the kidnapers called on Chirac to go further and stop his country's military aid to Iraq, which has been at war with Iran for more than six years. The kidnapers also demanded that France "get out of the American political circle."
The organization also praised the mediation efforts of Iran, Syria and Algeria and said it was releasing its hostage as "a Christmas good-will gesture."
In a much different and poignant gesture, Joelle Kauffman, the wife of Jean-Paul Kauffman, a French journalist kidnaped by Islamic Jihad in March, 1985, arrived in Beirut on Tuesday afternoon, saying she wanted "to spend Christmas closer to Jean-Paul."