Chirac unlocks hostages - and perhaps 'Elys'ee?

Iran cast its vote for Jacques Chirac. By pressuring its Lebanese allies, Tehran helped Prime Minister Chirac secure the release Wednesday evening of the final three French hostages held in Beirut.

The timing was both judicious and suspicious: four days before French presidential elections in which Mr. Chirac remains the underdog against President Fran,cois Mitterrand.

Chirac is counting on a dramatic one-two punch to catch up. In a separate incident yesterday, French commandos in New Caledonia attacked a cave, where Kanak separatists were holding hostage 22 gendarmes. Fifteen Kanaks and two French commandos were killed, and all the hostages freed. Said one Chirac candidate: ``If New Caledonia works too, it might be enough.''

Diplomats Marcel Carton and Marcel Fontaine, along with journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann, ended their three-year hostage ordeal early yesterday morning when a military jet brought them to an airfield outside of Paris.

A beaming Chirac greeted them. He thanked Iran for its help and said diplomatic relations soon would be reestablished. France broke these relations last August, after Iranian embassy employee Wahid Gordji refused to give evidence to a French judge about his alleged involvement in a series of 1986 bombings in Paris.

Otherwise, Chirac said nothing about the price paid in return for the hostage's freedom. His silence fed rampant reports France had transferred a multi-million dollar ransom to a Tehran bank account, was preparing to release terrorists from its jails within 48 hours, and would start selling arms to the Iranians.

Both the United States and Great Britain greeted the hostage release with warnings. Nine Americans and two British citizens remain captive in Lebanon, and their governments fear Chirac may have set a dangerous example.

From the beginning, Iran set three conditions for helping gain the French hostages' release: a crackdown on anti-Khomeini Iranian exiles, the repayment of a $1 billion loan made to the French nuclear industry by the former Shah, and a realignment of France's Middle East policy away from its traditional ally, Iraq.

In November, the French expelled 17 Iranian political exiles, paid back $330 million of the loan, and allowed Mr. Gordji to leave France. In return, two French hostages were freed.

On March 24, another terrorist suspect, Muhammed al-Muhajir, was released. French police originally described Mr. Muhajir, a Shiite from Lebanon, as the spiritual father behind a bombing ring that terrorized Paris two years ago.

French officials insist they have not budged on the important issues: an Iranian demand to end arms sales to Iraq or to withdraw French warships from the Gulf, where they help protect Western shipping against Iranian attacks. The French say Iran accepted less than it wanted in a desire to break out of its diplomatic isolation.

Western diplomats on post in Paris say only four or five people in the French government know the precise terms of the negotiations. Chirac conducted the negotiations in secrecy through Jean-Charles Marchiani, a former secret-service agent.

``There's a lot going on under the surface,'' commented one diplomat,``but the Iranians obviously felt they could get the most by playing the Chirac card.''

No matter the price, the French public seems to approve of getting the hostages out. Almost no criticism was voiced after they returned home.

``Tomorrow will come the questions,'' wrote Marc Kravetz in a lead editorial for the left-wing Paris daily Liberation. ``The essential [issue] today is the freedom of the three men.''

President Mitterrand applauded the release in a brief television announcement. But some sources suggested he had tried to block a deal until after the election by recently dispatching an emissary, former Le Monde journalist Eric Rouleau, to the Middle East.

Analysts still are undecided on whether the release will prove decisive in Sunday's election. Most say it will create a can-do aura around Chirac. But some suggest that voters will see the hostages' release as a cynical gesture to win votes.

``Say Mitterrand wins,'' the Western diplomat speculates. ``He won't be happy that the Iranians gave the hostages to Chirac.''

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