France today ordered two Syrian diplomats expelled and recalled its ambassador to Damascus after a bomb explosion near the Champs Elysees killed a pregnant woman and wounded more than 60 passers-by.
French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson told the National Assembly that it was "too early" to link the Syrian cultural and military attaches "necessarily" with the rush hour explosion outside the offices of the pro-Iraqi newspaper Al Watan Al Arabi.
Nevertheless, the newspaper, highly critical of Syria had been the first to pin responsibility for the assassination of French Ambassador Louis Delamare last September in Beirut on Syrian special forces commanded by President Hafez Assad's brother, Rifaat.
Only last night an hour-long documentary shown on French television--despite official Syrian protests to the state-run network--reiterated the charges that two of Rifaat's men had killed Delamare after bungling an attempted kidnaping.
Syria retaliated for the French action, ordering the expulsion from Damascus within the next 48 hours of two French diplomats and recalling its ambassador to Paris.
The explosion and its consequences reflected the growing deterioration of once excellent relations between France and Syria and the spreading violence caused by the bitter war between the rival Baath Party governments in Syria and Iraq.
A government insider explained that the bombing was the "last straw" for the French government, which is increasingly concerned with terrorism and other aspects of maintaining law and order. The decision to expel the French diplomats was announced only three hours after the Rue Marbeuf explosion in an Opel station wagon rented in Switzerland with false papers.
In the past week the conservative opposition as well as moderate Socialists such as Interior Minister Gaston Defferre have called for increased police powers to fight terrorism.
Such calls were prompted by a series of terrorist operations over the past six months. They included the unsuccessful murder attempt against U.S. Charge d'Affaires Christian Chapman, the assassinations of U.S. military attache Lt. Col. Charles Ray and Israeli diplomat Yacov Barsimantov, the machine-gunning of an Israeli Embassy annex as well as the bomb explosion aboard a crack French train in which five persons were killed.
Despite the government's swift decision, some analysts were not convinced that Syria was directly involved in today's explosion.
Lending weight to these doubts was the one-day trial today of two lieutenants of the shadowy terrorist Illich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos.
Bruno Breguet, 31, and Magdalena Kopp, 34, were found guilty by a Paris court of illegal possession of explosives and firearms and sentenced to five- and four-year prison terms, respectively.
Carlos, in a letter French officials said was authentic, had warned in early March that he would punish the French government unless his arrested operatives were released within a month.
The timing of the explosions today--as office workers were walking to their jobs just after 9 a.m.--seemed intended to inflict the maximum number of victims.
Cheysson said the "affair was prepared by professionals" and added that "only miraculously" had the casualty toll been so low.
Observers familiar with Carlos' earlier terrorist acts in France speculated that the car bomb explosion today bore his signature.
Such was not the opinion of the Lebanese journalists working for Al Watan Al Arabi. For them the explosion, which shattered windows in a 150-yard radius, badly damaged a ground floor Lebanese restaurant and a dozen parked cars, was all too reminiscent of the car bomb explosions that are commonplace in Beirut.
French government insiders identified both cultural attache Mika Kassouha and military attache Maj. Hasssan Ali as members of the Syrian secret service.
Cheysson also hinted as much. The minister told the National Assembly that "we will act the same way with anyone who allows himself to violate his diplomatic status and go beyond what is accepted in the civilized world to which we belong."
In recent years France has become a killing ground for international terrorists and secret services in part because of what foreign specialists consider lax police methods.
Defferre, acting as prime minister in Pierre Mauroy's absence, condemned "the authors of the explosion who did not hesitate to shed blood on French soil in settling their scores." Yet, in some ways, the French government has been sucked into the treacherous politics of the Middle East.
Syrian responsibility in the murder of the French ambassador to Lebanon was considered a foregone conclusion by many informed Lebanese . The French government chose not to make any formal protest or public accusation.
The alleged motives were said to be Syrian anger at Delamare's activist role in Lebanon which Damascus saw as unfriendly.