PARIS, NOV. 3 -- Three French soldiers captured by Iraq near its border and then freed were flown to Jordan today, and the French Defense Ministry suggested they had blundered into Iraqi territory.
The incident provided a new embarrassment for the French government, following Iraq's unsolicited release of French hostages earlier in the week. French officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the soldiers' release as another attempt by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to divide France from the rest of the Western community opposing him. Saddam cited Iraq's "special relationship" with France as the reason for freeing the soldiers and the 262 hostages.
"Every time something happens that allows Iraq to show that France and Iraq have a special relationship, Iraq will try to underline it," said a French Foreign Ministry official. "It is up to us and the rest of the world not to fall into this trap."
The official said Iraq was trying to avoid conflict, and noted that the Iraqi soldiers avoided firing on the soldiers even before knowing their nationality. "It is clear that there is general context in which the Iraqis are not looking for a casus belli," she said. "The Iraqis are looking to solve this as simply as possible."
The official said that Saddam's gestures would not soften France's demands that Iraq withdraw from Kuwait and release all foreign hostages. But, she said, the moves have encouraged private initiatives seeking the release of other hostages, which could weaken the international consensus against Iraq.
The Defense Ministry also seemed embarrassed by what appeared to be a blunder by the three-man reconnaissance patrol. A ministry spokesman said the army was not sure exactly where the men were when captured, but believed that they had gotten lost. He said the men would be questioned about Saudi and Iraqi military reports that the patrol had wandered from its assigned area near Hafar al-Batin in Saudi Arabia across a seven-mile no-man's-land into Iraq.