In the last few days, Paris has been seized by a new wave of Mideast-related political violence that has left French police feeling both angry and frustrated.
On the morning of July 21, an unidentified assassin, carrying a pistol equipped with a silencer, walked into the Paris offices of the Arab political magazine Arab Renaissance, and shot its managing editor, Salah Bitar.
Mr. Bitar was a former prime minister of the United Arab Republic, when it included Egypt and Syria, and had been one of the founders of Syria's Baath Party. He had been living in Paris since being forced into exile in 1966, and was considered a likely candidate to lead a "national front" coalition against Syrian President Hafez Assad.
What has bothered French police even more than Mr. bitar's murder is the information that has now surfaced concerning the assassination attempt July 18 against former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar. The incident apparently involved both Iranian revolutionaries and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
A five-man commando group, armed with silencer-equipped pistols, shot three policemen outside the apartment where Mr. Bakhtiar was staying. One policeman was killed, two others were wounded. A neighbor was killed. After the terrorists tried unsuccessfully to shoot their way into Mr. Bakhtiar's apartment they gave up and tried to escape from the building.
A policeman standing guard in the street below, was able to hold three of the gunmen at bay until police reinforcements arrived. The other two were picked up in a police roundup the next day. One had been hiding out in an apartment only one door away from the building where famed terrorist leader "Carlos" hid out in 1975.
Under police questioning, all five of the terrorists said they had been sent by the Al-Fatah branch of the PLO. the leader of the group, Anis Naccache, who was traveling on a Lebanese passport, claimed that he had received orders from Yasser Arafat in person as well as from Aboud Mazen, one of the members of the Al-Fatah central committee.
Mr. Mazen, finally located by reporters in Damascus, denied being involved.Al-Fatah, in Beirut, also denied responsibility, although an Al-Fatah spokesman acknowledged that the assassination attempt had been made on orders of Iran's Islamic Republican Party. Mr. Naccache, it turns out, was a PLO representative in Tehran.
French police are still smarting over the fatal shooting of a French police officer during a siege of the Iraqi Embassy here in July 1978. During that incident, police had already arrested the PLO terrorist responsible and were putting him in a police car, when five Iraqi Embassy security personnel opened fire. The Iraqis missed the terrorist, but killed the policeman. Because the Iraqis had diplomatic immunity, they were deported and eventually freed. Police are determined that that won't happen in the case of the five terrorists arrested this time. None of the five have diplomatic immunity.
Trying the terrorists is not going to be easy though. When Iran's foreign minister, Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, tried to deny Iranian involvement over the weekend, he was shouted down by Iranian newspapers at home claiming that the attack had been completely justified. More menacing, the "Guardians of the Islamic Revolution," who claimed responsibility for the attempt, threatened to attack French interests in the Middle East if the five are not immediately released.
If the terrorists are put on trial it may mean that any number of French businesses and installations will come under threat of bombings, French citizens may run the risk of being taken hostage, and French airlines may run the risk of being hijacked. It's something the government would rather not think about. On the other hand, if the terrorists are let go, there will be increased bitterness on the part of the police, and increasing doubt about the ability of the government to keep law and order on its own territory.