France weighs risks of playing both fierce and friendly in Beirut

France has suddenly been thrust into the same situation as the United States: trying to gain freedom for hostages without giving in to terrorists. On Wednesday, Lebanese Shiite leader Nabih Berri announced that two Frenchmen kidnapped last month in Lebanon would be freed with 39 Americans also held hostage once his conditions were met.

Mr. Berri is negotiating on behalf of the Shiite Muslims who hijacked a TWA jet June 14, demanding the release of 766 Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.

Berri also suggested that the American hostages could be held in the custody of the French Embassy in Beirut until Israel releases the Lebanese prisoners.

For France, a nation that has long considered itself both an independent mediator and a proud humanitarian, Berri's offer is very tempting and very risky.

French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas insisted Thursday that the release of the hostages must be ``unconditional'' and that France would not play any part in ``blackmail.'' But, he said, the French government could not ``shrink away when it's a matter of putting an end to physical and moral suffering.''

The dangers of trying to play both fierce and friendly are nothing new for the French government in its dealings with terrorists. France has long tried to set itself off as a haven for the world's politically oppressed. With the growing number of terrorist attacks in Europe, though, the French government has been criticized for giving all kinds of extremists access to the Continent.

In Lebanon, France does not want to bargain with the terrorists, it wants to help the hostages. ``They would still be better off at the French Embassy than anywhere else,'' says Dominique Moisi, assistant director of the French Institute of International Relations.

The two French hostages Berri offered to release are Jean-Paul Kaufmann, a reporter for the weekly L''Ev'enement du Jeudi, and Michel Seurat, a scientific researcher. They were kidnapped May 22. Two months ago, French diplomats Marcel Carton and Marcel Fontaine were kidnapped in Beirut. French officials have been negotiating to obtain their release. On Thursday Messrs. Kaufmann and Seurat were reportedly moved to Berri's home in west Beirut.

France faces other risks besides giving terrorists' credibility. Whatever agreement is eventually reached might take time to complete, and France would thus find itself acting as jailer to the hostages. In a hostile capital such as Beirut, there are fears that the French Embassy itself could be held hostage by extremists.

If France does agree to house the hostages in its embassy, Mr. Moisi says, it will probably insist on strong guarantees from the Shiites, Israel, and the US that each will live up to its side of the bargain.

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