Two members of a four-man French television crew kidnaped in March were set free near a west Beirut hotel tonight.
Television correspondent Philippe Rochot and cameraman Georges Hansen told reporters gathered around them at the lobby of the Beaurivage Hotel that they had been well treated and well fed but had little communication with their captors because of language problems.
Rochot said he had been kept with Antenne 2 colleague Aureal Cornea, while Hansen was held with Jean-Louis Normandin.
"This is the first time I have seen him in three months," Rochot said of Hansen, who appeared healthy and alert with a full beard. "The men holding us kept telling us how sorry they were and that they had nothing against the French people," Rochot said.
The four were kidnaped at gunpoint while driving back from a rally by the fundamentalist Shiite Moslem group Hezbollah, or Party of God, on March 8.
At dawn today, a caller who said he represented a group called the Revolutionary Justice Organization, told the newspaper An Nahar that the two hostages would be released. The caller read a communique saying the release had been arranged following mediation by officials of Hezbollah, representatives of Algeria and Syrian President Hafez Assad.
The release followed months of intense negotiations involving Iran, which backs Hezbollah, and Syria. France's new prime minister, Jacques Chirac, had made the release of the two men freed today and seven other French citizens who have been kidnaped here a priority.
In Washington, a State Department spokesman expressed "pleasure" over the release, Agence France-Presse reported. He noted, however, that the development did not necessarily have ramifications for the five Americans who have been kidnaped in Beirut because they are thought to be held by a different group.
The release of the two hostages follows several apparent changes in French policy toward Iran and Iraq, which have been at war for almost six years. On June 6 an Iranian opposition figure left France, and Tehran and Paris have been holding talks on resolving a dispute over $1.5 billion in Iranian financial investments seized by France after the Islamic revolution in Tehran.
Chirac was reported to have made concessions to Iran on the sensitive issue of arms supplies in an unpublicized deal sealed last month. Iranian and Palestinian sources said France had agreed to an Iranian request for arms through a third party. Western diplomats in Syria said last week they had heard of such a deal, but there has not been any confirmation.
Published reports over the weekend said France has pledged not to conclude new arms supplies agreements with Iraq although it will honor existing ones. Until recently, France was Iraq's main source of arms.
The reports have also mentioned a $1 billion credit line by France to Iran for the purchase of French-made war supplies such as armored vehicles and radar equipment, but excluding aircraft and missiles.
The release of the two hostages followed a day of false alarms and excitement. There were several calls to newspapers and news agencies announcing the impending release, and at one point the French ambassador and other officials drove in a convoy to the Beaurivage. They waited 45 minutes for the hostages to appear, then gave up and returned to east Beirut.
Rochot told reporters, "We were let free near the Beaurivage Hotel, and then we walked to the hotel." He told the first reporter who spotted him in the hotel lobby, looking lost and surrounded by Syrian plainclothesmen, that his captors "gave us books of love and French literature. We ate three times a day, we were given three cigarettes a day, we could wash and shower."
Rochot said he was worried during his captivity because he did not know what was going on with negotiations for their release and felt responsible for his crew.
"I was personally pessimistic because I could not follow up on negotiations. I am very happy to be going back to Paris and to my family," he added.
Agence France-Presse said the two hostages planned to fly to Damascus and then to Paris. Official sources in Paris said a plane was standing by in Cyprus to take them to Paris.
The release raised hopes for at least seven other French kidnap victims who have been held since last year.
The announcement of the release, read over the telephone to the newspaper An Nahar at dawn today, said, "We announce the release of two French hostages with the hope that France will seize this opportunity and show its good intentions by rectifying its policies and making good on its promises so the rest of the hostages will be released."
The five Americans believed to be held hostage in Lebanon are Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, diplomat William Buckley, American University Hospital director David Jacobsen, Roman Catholic priest Rev. Martin Jenco and American University administrator Thomas Sutherland. There have been unconfirmed reports of Buckley's death.