Reported Remark by French P.m. Stirs International Political Crisis

Prime Minister Jacques Chirac is attempting to defuse an international political scandal and possible domestic crisis touched off by his alleged remark to an American journalist that Israel rather than Syria was implicated in the attempt to smuggle explosives aboard an El Al airliner at London’s Heathrow Airport last April 17.

According to Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor of the Washington Times which published the story Friday, Chirac attributed the version of events to West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher in conversation at a meeting of the European Economic Community’s (EEC) Council of Ministers in Luxembourg last month.

Chirac’s office issued a statement Friday saying that “the interpretation given to his comments” to Borchgrave “is devoid of foundation.” It was noted immediately here and abroad that Chirac’s statement fell short of a denial.

The West Germans reacted angrily and an Israeli official said he was “staggered” by the “unbelievable,” “ridiculous” story. Borchgrave said on French television Saturday that if the French “call me a liar” his newspaper would print the full transcript in his taped interview with Chirac.

CLAIMS ‘STORY IS PURE INVENTION’

Reinhard Bettzuege, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry in Bonn, said “This story is pure invention which we totally, clearly and unequivocally deny.” Earlier, Friedhelm Ost, a spokesman for Kohl, said “Aside from the fact that we are consulting Chirac, the West German government has never had such information (regarding the airliner bomb attempt) and therefore could never have given such information to the French government.”

At a meeting with French Jewish community leaders here Sunday night, scheduled long before the Washington Times story appeared, Chirac avoided the subject and was not pressed.

At the Luxembourg meeting in question, British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe urged Britain’s EEC partners to take strong measures against Syria for its alleged involvement in international terrorism.

Britain broke diplomatic relations with Damascus, charging that the Syrian Ambassador in London and his staff acted in collusion with Nezar Hindawi, the Jordanian national convicted of the El Al bomb attempt and sentenced to 45 years in prison.

According to the Washington Times report, Chirac “pooh-poohed” the evidence against Syria, submitted by Britain at the EEC meeting. He allegedly told Borchgrave that he did not know the real truth but that Kohl and Genscher told him Syria was not involved in the bomb plot, though Israel’s secret service Mossad may have masterminded the whole affair with the help of Syrian dissidents who wanted to discredit President Hafez Assad and bring down his government.

Borchgrave said Chirac asked not to be quoted directly on this matter but agreed to have his remarks paraphrased.

PRIME MINISTER TAKEN TO TASK

Chirac’s own party, the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR), and the opposition Socialist Party took the Prime Minister to task over the weekend for having been at best naive to put himself and his government in an embarrassing position. Officials close to Chirac said he may have been entrapped by Borchgrave, a hardline conservative, whom he believed mistakenly to represent The Washington Post. The Washington Times is a rightwing newspaper owned by The Rev. Sun Yung Moon.

Since his election victory over the Socialists last March 15, Chirac has tried to improve his relations with Israel and with French Jews. His reception by Jewish leaders here Sunday night was decidedly lukewarm.

Theo Klein, president of the Representative Council of Major French Jewish Organizations (CRIF), alluded to The Washington Times report in his introductory remarks. “You are our host and we shall ask you no questions. We nonetheless hope that you will answer the question which is on all of our minds,” he said.

The Prime Minister, who sat between Israeli Ambassador Ovadia Soffer and French Chief Rabbi Rene Sirat, carefully avoided the issue.

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