France's new right-wing government today announced the withdrawal of its military observer force from Beirut following an escalation of attacks on French citizens in Lebanon.
This reduction of the French presence in Lebanon was one of the first significant foreign policy decisions since the narrow right-wing victory in last month's elections. It appeared to reflect the new division of executive authority between conservative Prime Minister Jacques Chirac and Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.
Officials at the Elysee presidential palace said Mitterrand had been "consulted" by the government about the withdrawal of the 45-man observer force and had not objected. The decision itself, however, bore the stamp of Chirac, who has publicly called for a reduction in the number of potential French hostages in Lebanon.
As the former colonial power in the region, France is the favorite political target for extremist Lebanese factions after the United States. Eight French citizens have been kidnaped by Shiite forces and seven military observers have been killed over the past two years.
Two British teachers at the American University of Beirut, who were last seen at a west Beirut night club, are missing and feared kidnaped, The Associated Press reported, quoting university sources.
[The missing men were identified as Leigh Douglas, 34, a political science professor, and Philip Hatfield, 35, director of the university's International Language Center. No group or individual has claimed to be holding the two men.]
The French observer force was deployed in Beirut in March 1984 following the evacuation of the multinational force, which included French and U.S. units. Its main task was monitoring the cease-fire line between the Christian and Moslem sectors of Beirut, but the scope of its activity was steadily whittled down for security reasons.
An official in Chirac's office said the decision to pull the observers out was taken last week, primarily because the government did not want to "expose French lives for nothing." He added, however, that it could be an indirect factor in helping to secure the release of the French hostages in Beirut.
Statements by Shiite leaders in Lebanon over the past week have suggested that a solution to the hostage crisis could be imminent. The kidnapers are reported to have demanded the release of Arab prisoners in French jails and the ending of French support for Iraq in the Persian Gulf war with Iran as the price for releasing the hostages.
About 1,400 French troops are still in Lebanon as part of a U.N. contingent in the south of the country.