A black-bearded youth wielding a pistol fired a half-dozen shots at the top-ranking U.S. diplomat in France today in a botched assassination attempt outside the diplomat's apartment near the Eiffel Tower.
Charge d'Affaires Christian Chapman, 60, said he escaped injury by ducking behind his chauffeur-driven embassy sedan after seeing a man reach into his black leather jacket, move swiftly toward the diplomat and fire away in full view of several passers-by.
Chapman described the gunman as "a Middle Eastern type." The assailant -- apparently acting alone -- fled the scene on foot, and Paris police reported no arrests.
The French Foreign Ministry said Chapman had informed the government recently of a threat against U.S. diplomats in Paris. The fears, diplomatic sources added, grew from U.S. intelligence reports that Libyan agents were planning attacks on American diplomats in several European capitals to avenge the shooting down of two Libyan warplanes last August by U.S. Navy pilots on maneuvers in the Gulf of Sidra off Libya.
In Washington, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. said he suspected that the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi, could have been behind the attack on Chapman.
"We do have repeated reports coming to us from reliable sources that Mr. Qaddafi has been funding, sponsoring, training, harboring terrorist groups who conduct activities against the lives and well-being of American diplomats and facilities," Haig said in an appearance before the House International Affairs Committee.
"I think it underlines once again the urgency of dealing with this problem (Qaddafi) in an effective, prudent but unequivocal way."
In a message telexed to Reuter in London, the Libyan news agency JANA described Haig's statement as "insolent in the extreme."
An official source said the allegation affirmed "the continued and deliberate attempt by the American administration to mislead American public opinion and the Senate by giving false information about foreign matters concerning Libya, which repeatedly declared its keenness to establish good relations with the American people," JANA said.
Chapman is the highest ranking diplomat at the U.S. Embassy pending arrival of the newly appointed U.S. ambassador, Evan Griffith Galbraith. He refused to speculate whether the attempt on his life was part of the reported Libyan plan.
"I have no sweeping statements on that," he said, outwardly calm and fielding questions in French and English. "There is no basis for making speculation from the incident."
The shooting was the first such attack on the life of an American diplomat stationed in Paris in the memory of police and embassy staffers. Paris frequently has been the scene of international terrorism, however, and a bomb exploded at the U.S. Consulate in 1972 in the days of demonstrations against the American role in the Vietnam War.
Chapman's car, a standard-issue Plymouth four-door, was not armor-plated, an embassy spokesman said. Police investigators found two bullet holes in the rear end and said a third bullet pierced the right rear fender, traveled through the trunk and exited through the other fender.
The embassy chauffeur, who was with the car, was not hit, police reported. In all, they added, the assailant fired six or seven 7.65 caliber bullets, apparently emptying his clip, before fleeing down the quiet residential streets of the chic Seventh Arrondissement.
Since Chapman's report of a threat, the Foreign Ministry said, the government had offered police protection, but the offer was never taken up. An embassy source said Ambassador Arthur Hartman, who left recently to become ambassador to Moscow, had French police protection during his stay here.
The source said the offer of protection for Chapman was still under discussion. "I am sure that will change now," the source said.
Chapman, who has been stationed here since 1978, was leaving his apartment about 8:45 a.m. to go to work at the embassy, on Place de la Concorde on the other side of the Seine River, when he saw what he described as "a very handsome young man -- a Middle Eastern type." Chapman said the man had "a black beard, big jet-black eyes and an athletic build."
"Instead of going back into the house," he said at a news conference, "I stupidly continued on. I heard shots and saw him walking rapidly toward me with his hand sticking out. I ran forward and ducked behind the car. He then started walking rather quickly away."
The gunman said nothing during the few seconds he was firing, Chapman recalled, adding: "We didn't chat."
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, and police reported no leads to the whereabouts of the assailant.
Based on Chapman's account of the shooting, reenacted for police late this morning, the gunman appeared to have drawn his weapon and started firing before he got close enough to be sure of hitting his target at the close range required by pistols. The gunman's action seemed to suggest that he lacked professionalism or training or that he was seeking to limit the risk of capture by leaving room for a getaway.