PARIS -- With the killers of former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar still at large, French and Swiss police officials are shamefacedly trying to explain how those suspected of killing him have repeatedly escaped arrest over the last two weeks.
The authorities complain that tips about the whereabouts of the three fugitive Iranians have been leaked so quickly to the press that at times police officers and reporters have stumbled over each other as they rushed to check out new leads.
But newspapers in Paris have also reported suspicions among some police officers that the French government may not be anxious to capture Mr. Bakhtiar's killers for fear of complicating newly improved relations with Iran.
Iranian exile groups have accused Tehran of ordering his death, though the Iranian government has denied responsibility and blamed radicals intent on sabotaging its rapprochement with France. So far, the assassination has not affected President Francois Mitterrand's plan to visit Iran later this year.
French conservative opposition parties have in turn strongly criticized the performance of the police. They have specifically faulted Interior Minister Philippe Marchand, who only returned from vacation Monday, for failing to take charge of the hunt.
The first security failure was allowing the killers to enter and leave Mr. Bakhtiar's well-guarded house in a suburb of Paris on Aug. 6. The killers apparently gained access because one of the suspects, Farydoun Boyer Ahmadi, was known to the Iranian opposition leader.
More puzzling was the fact that 40 hours passed before the bodies of Mr. Bakhtiar and his secretary were found. The lights at his house were left on throughout that period, and no sounds were heard except for a ringing telephone. Eventually, Mr. Bakhtiar's son raised the alarm after his calls went unanswered.
By then, two of the suspects, Ali Vakili Rad and Mohammed Azadi, had already tried to enter Switzerland with Turkish passports bearing false names. They were halted because their entry visas were considered suspect and they were returned to the French border, interrogated and freed.
Once the killings were discovered, the police began hunting the two men, but they were always a few steps behind.
They raided a hotel near Valence where the men had spent two nights and even found a wallet belonging to one of the suspects in a telephone booth.
The Swiss police were embarrassed when it was disclosed -- in Paris -- that the two men had spent at least two nights in two different hotels in Geneva using their false Turkish names. One of the men reportedly took a bus to and from the French town of Annecy.
On another day, Swiss police officers arriving to search a hotel met a French television crew.
In Geneva, Thierry Magnin, a spokesman for the Swiss police, complained bitterly about leaks of information by France. "We have thefeeling we're being short-circuited," he said. "In any event, we have been somewhat sabotaged in our work. One finishes up wondering who wants the investigation to fail."
The search for Mr. Boyer Ahmadi, who has lived in France since 1984, has involved some frustrating near misses. Nothing was heard of him for a week after the killings. Bloodstains in his car prompted speculation that he might have been slain by the other suspects.
Last week, two Iranian women were blocked by a man they recognized as Mr. Boyer Ahmadi when they tried to enter a Paris apartment that they had rented to a man they later identified as Mr. Rad. The two women notified a relative who told a journalist who told the police, but Mr. Boyer Ahmadi had vanished by the time the apartment was searched.
Last week, he was nonetheless still believed to be in Paris because he called a friend, apparently to seek a hiding place. No new leads have been reported in the press since then, and the fear is growing that the suspects have escaped France and perhaps Europe.