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From Siberia to Nantes: The great escape of the Alliance Française's Yoann Barbereau

© Loic Venance, AFP | Yoann Barbereau during a press conference in the city of Nantes, in western France, on November 10, 2017

Text by Louise NORDSTROM

Latest update : 2017-11-10

In September 2016, the French director of the Alliance Française centre in Siberia disappeared without a trace after being targeted in a criminal probe. On Wednesday he turned up in France, recounting a spectacular escape from Russian authorities.

Yoann Barbereau’s 14 months on the run has all the ingredients of a great spy novel: Deliberate smokescreens, satellite maps and minute planning. This week, his flight from Russian authorities culminated in a fascinating finale during which he claims he clandestinely crossed the Russian border – on foot.

“I’ve risked my life in these past few days. I can’t tell you where I’ve been, but I’ve been in an area where people who try to cross [the border] get shot at and where dogs are let loose to rip your arm off,” the 39-year-old told France 2’s investigative programme, Envoyé Spécial, in an exclusive interview on Thursday.

“For [nearly] three years I’ve been living in another world, in a totally different reality. Now I return to reality,” Barbereau said.

The former director of the Siberia mission of the Alliance Française – a government-funded agency that promotes French language and culture abroad – resurfaced in his hometown of Nantes in western France on Wednesday.

Mongolian Facebook post

Barbereau’s ordeal with the Russian authorities began in February 2015, when he was arrested at his home in Irkutsk, Siberia, on suspicions of having sexually molested his then 4-year-old daughter, Héloïse. After spending 71 days in pre-trial detention, he was then admitted to a psychiatric hospital before being placed under house arrest with an electronic bracelet while awaiting sentencing.

Barbereau has always denied the charges, claiming he was framed in a bizarre plot involving Russian intelligence services and French international business interests.

On September 11, 2016, after spending a total of eight months under house arrest, Barbereau escaped, evading Russian police by wrapping his electronic tagging device in kitchen foil and planting his cell phone on a bus. A few days later, a cryptic message citing a cardinal's escape from a Nantes prison in 1654 was posted from his Facebook account, showing his location as Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia.

There was no further indication of the Frenchman’s whereabouts. Until now.

Hiding in Moscow

In his interview with Envoyé Spécial, Barbereau said that the Mongolia post had been nothing but a smokescreen and that he had spent “more than a year” hiding at the French embassy in Moscow.

“In the past few days I took the decision to leave the embassy, by my own means, and make it to a European border illegally,” he said, adding that he had spent a long time preparing for his exit.

“You don’t cross a border just like that. I’ve spent months studying satellite maps. I’ve prepared myself, equipped myself, and I’ve had co-conspirators,” he said.

Barbereau declined to disclose what border he crossed, however, for fear of putting the people who helped him in danger.

“They took a risk for me and their lives remain at risk today,” he said.

‘Diplomatic disaster’

Barbereau, who was sentenced in absentia to 15 years of hard labour after his escape, said his case illustrates a “great diplomatic failure” on behalf of French authorities.

“Very serious errors and a great level of incompetence has emerged in this case. They (French authorities) have no idea how to talk with the Russians, they talk to the wrong people,” he said.

France's interior ministry on Friday defended its diplomatic efforts, telling AFP it had "regularly brought up the case with Russian authorities".

"We always practice the utmost discretion to best protect the rights of our compatriots who are in difficulty abroad," the ministry said.

Barbereau’s escape has prompted Russia to issue a so-called “red notice” with the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) to locate and arrest him. On Friday, Moscow announced that it was taking new legal measures against him.

“Today, I’m stuck in France,” Barbereau said.

Barbereau told a press conference in Nantes on Friday that he expects French authorities to work towards “dropping all the allegations and condemnations” against him, and to compensate him for his troubles.

Date created : 2017-11-10