The Aubenas kidnapping, the Romanian connection, and a whiff of Oil-For-Food
Tuesday I posted that the Romanian newspaper “Cotidianul” had said that
the release of the 6 hostages is also due to the actions of a secret network of former Iraqi students who had been recruited by the Romanian Secret Services during the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.
Further news stories confirm this, as the Aubenas negotiations were connected to the release of Romanian journalists, and also raise a Syrian connection.
Romanian Prime Minister Calin Tariceanu has confirmed in an interview on French television that his country’s secret services had worked to free kidnapped French journalist Florence Aubenas. Another Romanian newspaper, Averea,
quoted a local secret service agent as saying that President Traian Basescu had appealed to an Arab network, cultivated by former communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, for help after three Romanian reporters were taken hostage near Baghdad in March.
The source said Basescu approached agents who recruited Arabs students in communist-era Romania to spy for the former regime, and had them persuade their charges to talk to their old contacts in the Middle East.
“The moles were ‘reactivated’ by President Basescu during the hostage crisis. From that moment on, information started flowing our way,” he was quoted as saying.
. . .
Ceausescu’s former spy chief, Nicolae Plesita, on Tuesday confirmed that the release of the Romanian hostages had been helped along by “an old spy who was set to work again.”
“The work we used to do still has some use. The people who gave information about the journalists were agents recruited by the Securitate,” the communist-era secret service, he said.
But historian Armand Gosu warned that claims about the positive role played by the former spies in the hostage crises, should be viewed with skepticism.
“After 1989, the secret services were vilified and they have let slip information that would show them in a very good light,” he told AFP.
“I would rather be inclined to see a Syrian link in the resolution of this crisis,” he added.
This theory is supported by other experts in Bucharest.
Basescu has refused to give details about how Bucharest secured the release of the Romanian hostages, smiling when asked whether Damascus played a role.
Jim Hoagland, op-ed WaPo collumnist, in his article Crime Over Courage In Iraq, explains the kidnapping business and how it relates to the kidnapping and release of the Romanian journalists and Ms Aubenas (emphasis mine):
The Romanian government, which rejected any troop withdrawals, managed to win the journalists’ freedom a month after their suffering was exploited on al-Jazeera. With the help of Iraq’s besieged authorities, Bucharest has also unraveled many details of the kidnapping plot.
That investigation in turn contributed to the freeing Sunday of French journalist Florence Aubenas and her Iraqi translator, Hussein Hanoun Saadi. They and the Romanians were held on a “hostage farm” north of Baghdad by one of the local networks that traffic in foreign and Iraqi hostages. French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin publicly thanked Romania on Tuesday for its help.
There’s even a whiff of Oil-For-Food:
The Romanian case also casts new light on the strong connections that united the Iraqi dictator — and other Arab leaders — with the intelligence services and political establishments of the Soviet bloc for three decades. As they made cause against the United States together, they also made money together.
The U.N. oil-for-food scandal is in many ways only a small strand in the vast web of international corruption and violence spun around the Middle East’s oil riches. As the trial of Hussein is likely to show in great detail, his Baathist regime was an organized criminal enterprise that attained a scope and brutality rarely matched in human history. And those who worked with him, from East or West, were rewarded for their help.
In this he was not different from Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu or that dictator’s corrupt successors. The election last December of a democratic government headed by President Traian Basescu has finally opened the files of the Romanian Intelligence Service on its cooperation with terrorists — including Carlos the Jackal, Palestinian groups and Islamic fundamentalists — and the Arab middlemen who made fortunes out of facilitating such contacts.
One of the most important facilitators was Syrian businessman Omar Hayssam, whose family connections with Syrian intelligence and the Baathist regime in Damascus are detailed in the Romanian files, the Paris daily Le Monde reported this week. Authorities in Bucharest have identified Hayssam as the mastermind and financier of the plot in which Muhammad Munaf lured the Romanian journalists to their capture in Baghdad on March 28.
The Romanians have denied that they paid any ransom, as has the French government in the Aubenas case. Those assertions were greeted with much skepticism in the European media. But the key to the Romanians’ release may actually lie elsewhere. Hayssam was arrested in Bucharest on April 5 on (shades of Al Capone) tax evasion and other charges.
Munaf, his brother and a Syrian named Mahmoud Khaled Omar were ringleaders of the group of professional kidnappers under contract to Hayssam. As is often the case, after their capture the Romanian journalists went into a hostage gulag run by several criminal organizations.
As Mr. Hoagland concludes, “The case of Romania’s hostages has usefully put the spotlight on the reinforcing evils of corruption and tyranny”.
The question remains, who are the other people held in the same dungeon as Ms Aubenas, and what will happen to them?
Update: Was a ransom paid for Aubenas’s release? Via Barcepundit, Libertad Digital (in Spanish) quotes Reporteros sin Fronteras afirma que Francia pagó doce millones de dólares por Florence Aubenas (Reporters Without Borders states France paid $12 million for Florence Aubenas). Additionally, ‘Log-book’ of Iraq kidnap suggests France paid ransom for hostage
Her newspaper, Libération, appeared to give credence to the rumours by publishing a “log-book” or diary of the complex and confusing negotiations to win her release. The log-book, written over the past five months by the newspaper’s deputy editorial director, Patrick Sabatier, suggests the motives of her kidnappers were financial.
“Information received in Baghdad suggests that the kidnappers are ready to do a deal, having abandoned their maximalist demands,” the diary records in April. “But the latest French offer does not yet satisfy them.” However, M. Sabatier, in a separate article, said that Libération had not been told whether a ransom was paid.