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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ

French Hostage, Iraqi Interpreter Set Free

The two make their way to their homes after five months of captivity in 'severe' conditions.

June 13, 2005|Borzou Daragahi and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

PARIS — A French journalist and her Iraqi interpreter made joyous treks home Sunday after their release from five months of captivity by kidnappers in Iraq.

Florence Aubenas, 44, a veteran foreign correspondent for the daily Liberation, arrived at a military airport near Paris on Sunday evening in a government plane, accompanied by the French foreign minister, intelligence agents and the newspaper's editor.

Looking worn and thin but smiling broadly, Aubenas said during brief comments to journalists that she had been bound and blindfolded during much of her captivity. She said she was held with her Iraqi guide and driver, Hussein Hanoun Saadi, who was also released in Baghdad on Saturday.

"I was in a room with Hussein, a cellar," Aubenas said. "The conditions were severe."

President Jacques Chirac greeted Aubenas on the tarmac. She then hugged her parents and a group of family and friends.

Aubenas and French officials gave few details about her captivity and release. But Aubenas said she had not been held with three Romanian journalists who spent 55 days as hostages in Baghdad. Her statement contradicted the account of a Romanian journalist who said in a television interview Sunday that Aubenas had been imprisoned on a mattress next to her.

In north Baghdad on Sunday afternoon, relatives showered Saadi, Aubenas' interpreter, with confetti, hugs and tears of joy as he arrived home. A musician blew a horn while others played drums, and relatives and neighbors danced in the street and slaughtered sheep in celebration, witnesses said.

Saadi grabbed two of his four children and wept as he hugged them. He told them over and over again that his separation from them had "destroyed" him.

Wearing a gleaming white traditional Arab gown called a dishdasha, he was rushed into his home, where he spoke briefly to The Times.

"I'm very happy," Saadi, a former French-trained Iraqi air force fighter pilot, said at the front gate of his house in the Jaderia neighborhood of Baghdad on Sunday evening. "That's all I can say now."

The kidnappers delivered Saadi and Aubenas to agents of the DGSE, the French military intelligence service, during a tense rendezvous involving elaborate preparations and precautions, according to French officials and the editor of Liberation, Serge July.

"It was a rather complicated military operation because [the kidnappers] covered about 50 miles in Baghdad before releasing Florence and Hussein, before they were recovered by agents of the DGSE," July told reporters at the Villacoublay airport near Paris.

More than 200 foreigners living or working in Iraq have been abducted by criminal gangs and insurgents. More than 30 of them have been killed, the video recordings of their executions sometimes shown on websites and television.

Aubenas and Saadi were kidnapped Jan. 5, two weeks after insurgents freed French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, who were abducted on the treacherous road between the capital and Najaf in August 2004.

Aubenas briefly resurfaced, looking haggard and pleading for her life, in a videotape that appeared on Arabic television March 1.

The French government adopted a different strategy than in the case of Malbrunot and Chesnot, which prompted weeks of public appeals and trips to the Middle East by French leaders. In contrast to that media-heavy campaign, French leaders kept public discussion of Aubenas' ordeal to a minimum. That decision reinforced reports that her kidnappers were motivated more by money than by politics.

Nonetheless, the video appeal by Aubenas had a distinctly political overtone.

In a strange turn, the former Romanian hostage in Iraq said Sunday that she had encountered Aubenas during her captivity. Marie Jeanne Ion, a reporter who was held with two colleagues before their May 22 release, said in a television interview that she and Aubenas were held together.

"Our mattresses were next to each other," she told Romania's Antena 1. "She was telling me all the time, 'Of course we won't die. Of course we'll get out. They won't kill us.' If she wasn't there, we would have gone crazy."

Romanian officials have charged a Syrian Romanian businessman with orchestrating the abduction of Ion and her fellow journalists after helping arrange their trip to Baghdad. U.S. troops in Baghdad also arrested the Romanians' Iraqi interpreter, accusing him of being another accomplice of the abductors.

But Sunday evening, Aubenas cast doubt on a possible link between the two abductions. When a reporter asked Aubenas during the hurried airport news conference whether she had been held with the Romanians, she said, "No." It is possible she misheard the shouted question.

Aubenas said she would provide further details in a news conference Tuesday.

The circumstances surrounding the release of Aubenas and Saadi remained unclear. French authorities said they did not pay a ransom.

The kidnappers were harsh but disciplined, Aubenas told colleagues from Liberation at the airport, according to Agence France-Presse.

"They quickly took my bag [at the moment of the abduction], and they gave it back to me Saturday," Aubenas said. "They kept two important things: two metallic pens and a tube of lipstick. But they gave me back my passport."

*

Rotella reported from Paris and Daragahi from Baghdad. Times staff writers Suhail Ahmad in Baghdad and Achrene Sicakyuz in Paris and special correspondent Asmaa Waguih in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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