33101 5/23/2005 13:55 05BUCHAREST1190 Embassy Bucharest CONFIDENTIAL 05BUCHAREST1030|05BUCHAREST1184 This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available. C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 BUCHAREST 001190
STATE FOR EUR/NCE - WILLIAM SILKWORTH
E.O. 12958: DECL: 05/23/2015 TAGS: PREL, PGOV, PTER, CASC, IZ, RO, Hostage SUBJECT: ROMANIA CELEBRATES RETURN OF HOSTAGES; SEEKS RETURN OF AMCIT GUIDE
REF: A. A) BUCHAREST 1184 (EXDIS) B. B) BUCHAREST 1030
Classified By: POLITICAL SECTION CHIEF ROBERT GILCHRIST FOR REASONS 1.4 B AND D
1. (SBU) This message contains information on an American Citizen protected by the privacy act.
2 (C) Summary: Romanians welcomed home from Iraq May 23 the three Romanian journalists released by kidnappers on May 22. President Traian Basescu thanked Romanian security services as well as authorities at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for their efforts. Although Romanian actions leading to the release remain unclear, Basescu is riding high politically, with most political commentators praising his efforts throughout the crisis. The GOR continues to seek the return to Romania of U.S.-Iraqi dual national Munaf Mohmammad, who served as guide to the three journalists. End Summary.
3. (C) Romanian media covered heavily the afternoon of May 23 the emotional return of the three Romanian journalists who had been held hostage in Iraq. The return of the hostages brings an end to the 55-day crisis, which led to some calls domestically for Romania to reassess its troop presence in Iraq. The press noted that not among the returnees was American-Iraqi dual national Omar Munaf Mohammad, who was a longtime resident of Romania and served as a guide for the journalists. The President's office noted in a press statement that Mohammad remained in Iraq under detention by the Multinational Forces. Throughout the crisis, post worked closely with the GOR in ensuring a constant exchange of information. In the days before the release, however, the GOR had been relatively quiet and there had been no indication of the hostages' imminent release.
Basescu: Thanks to Families, Intelligence Services
4. (SBU) The first confirmation to post of the hostages release came in a May 22 telephone call from Basescu to Charge. Shortly after that call, Basescu held a press conference broadcast on most major television and radio stations. He announced that the hostages had been taken into the custody of the Romanian Embassy in Baghdad and would be returned to Bucharest soon. He thanked first the families of the hostages for their "decency and decorous conduct," which played an important part in helping bring the hostages home. He expressed a special thanks to the Romanian intelligence services, which he said had executed "100 percent" the release of the hostages. He specifically commended the Foreign Intelligence Service (SIE), Internal Intelligence Service (SRI) and Army Defense Intelligence Service (DIA) for their cooperation. Among others, he also thanked the special Romanian anti-terror team sent to Baghdad, foreign intelligence services, Romania's Arab community, and "not the least", U.S. authorities in Baghdad for their support and help in transporting the hostages to the airport
5. (C) Although he did not provide details on how the Romanian government obtained the release of the hostages, he said that Romania did not "negotiate its present or future foreign policy and did not pay any ransom." He said that the case involving the hostages was "very complex," and he anticipated making another statement when it is completely resolved, "probably in a couple of weeks." (Note: Other top Romanian officials -- including PM Calin Popescu-Tariceanu have similarly emphasized that Romania had not paid a ransom. Presidential counselor on security issues Constantin Degeretu again underscored directly to post that Romania "did not negotiate a ransom, did not negotiate money... we just tried to save lives." End note.)
A Different Kind of Kidnapping
6. (C) Basescu's assertion that the case is "very complex" hit a strong chord with many in the Romanian media and independent local analysts. From early on, the central belief has been that the kidnapping was orchestrated by wealthy Syrian-Romanian businessman Omar Hayssam. According to general media opinion, Hayssam had been involved in nefarious business deals linked to prominent members of the opposition Social Democratic Party (PSD). He then sought to orchestrate a crisis that he could solve and thus win the favor of Romania's new leadership. This view of Hayssam was also shared by many in government. Hayssam was arrested by Romanian police on corruption charges on April 5 and remains in detention. As a close business associate of Hayssam, Munaf Mohammad has also been implicated in the case. According to the press, on May 22 the Romanian prosecutor's office stated that charges were pending in Romania against Mohammad in absentia for unspecified "economic crimes." Some media reported separately that an arrest warrant had been issued against him.
7. (C) Although Hayssam's arrest stirred Press allegations of a pervasive "Arab Mafia" in Romania, it is also clear that Romania sought assistance from the local Arab community and from Arab countries in resolving the kidnapping. On May 23, Dr. Isam Rifai, head of a local Romanian-Arab business association, claimed that the hostages had "never been in danger" and that Romanian Arabs "used their influence" in Iraq to help with the case. FM Ungureanu traveled to Syria on April 30. The First Secretary at the Egyptian Embassy in Bucharest told PolChief that Romania had also approached Cairo for "any help possible" on the kidnapping. Presidential Counselor Degeratu also privately praised the contributions of the Romanian Muslim community in helping to resolve the crisis.
Basescu "Riding High"
8. (C) While the circumstances surrounding the kidnapping and the release remain opaque, as one political analyst conveyed to post, it is obvious that "Basescu is now riding high in public opinion." The summer 2004 kidnapping and killing of two hostages from neighboring Bulgaria had been covered heavily in the Romanian media. Many Romanians now expected the same for the three journalists and Mohammad, particularly after the kidnappers threatened to kill the hostages in April. Although a few dissenting voices have questioned Basescu's "micromanagement" of the crisis, nearly all in the media are now lauding what is viewed as a success "against all odds" in bringing the hostages home. A news director for Prima TV, which employs two of the journalists, thanked Basescu for "having the guts to resist pressures" during the crisis and managing the situation with utmost "efficiency." The mother of one of the hostages said she had "trusted the president until the end" and thanked him profusely for doing "all he could." 9. (C) Several commentators also noted that Basescu may use this surge in popularity for other political ends, potentially to bring about a new cabinet shakeup or even snap parliamentary elections to bring a larger majority for the government led by the Liberal-Democratic alliance. (Note: Presidential Advisor Claudiu Saftoiu previously mentioned this possibility to PolChief in the event the hostages were safely released. Saftoiu said at the time that Basescu had decided to remain relatively quiet about his interest in new elections during the crisis. Saftoiu believed that Basescu could renew these calls after the hostage's return, particularly if PM Tariceanu agreed to a new vote. End Note.)
10. (C) Comment: The last month has been a hard one on Romania, as the hostage crisis deepened and torrential flooding in the western part of the country rendered many homeless. This tension has now been replaced by jubilation over the hostages' release. We anticipate that the GOR will continue to press for Mohammad's return, as they believe he may hold the key to the motivation for the kidnapping. At the same time, however, Romania's commitment to a strong strategic relationship remains strong and we anticipate Basescu will stick to his word to keep Romanian troops in Iraq until their presence is no longer needed.
11. (SBU) Comment continued: On May 22, Consul General spoke by telephone with Munaf Mohammad's wife, Victoria Mohammad, who has dual U.S. and Romanian citizenship and resides in Romania. CG confirmed that Mohammad had been released and committed to remain in contact and provide updates as appropriate. End Comment.
12. (U) MINIMIZE CONSIDERED. DELARE