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U.S. Journalist Escapes From Lebanon Captors : CNN Correspondent Reached Syria, Ma Start Home Today; No Word on 4 Other Americans

Times Staff Writer

Kidnaped American journalist Jeremy Levin surfaced Thursday in good condition in Syria, nearly a year after he was taken captive in Beirut, and U.S. officials expressed hope that he could be on his way home as early as today.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Al-Sharaa turned Levin over to U.S. Ambassador William Eagleton at the Syrian Foreign Ministry in Damascus this morning.

Levin, a correspondent for Cable News Network, told reporters at the Foreign Ministry that he had escaped Wednesday night by tying three blankets together, sliding down a wall and fleeing to a Syrian Army position in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

He said he believed four other people were being held in the same place he was, but said he did not know whether they were Americans because he was in “solitary confinement” through the 11 months of captivity, Associated Press reported from Damascus. He said that he was “chained to a wall or radiator” most of the time.

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At the news conference, Levin was wearing grey trousers and a blue sweatshirt and white tennis shoes. One of his escorts said that the clothes had been purchased in the Lebanese town of Chtaura on Thursday because he had arrived at the Syrian Army position early that morning barefoot and in pajamas.

Levin was shaking when he arrived at the Foreign Ministry and appeared not to know exactly where he was, AP reported.

A journalist told him that he was about to be turned over to the American ambassador and that he was at the Syrian Foreign Ministry in Damascus.

“That is fantastic,” he said, in tears.

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“Lucille, where is Lucille,” he added in a loud voice, asking about his wife.

When told that she was waiting for him in Frankfurt, West Germany, he gasped and responded: “I can’t wait to see her. Please tell her I missed her very much and I love her so deeply.”

Asked how he felt he said: “I’m okay. Just fine. I feel wonderful. I’ve never been more thankful. I’ve never been more happy ... I can’t wait to be back on American soil.”

In Washington Thursday, the Syrian ambassador said that his government had secured Levin’s release, but late in the day, Syrian officials in Damascus confirmed that Levin, who was taken to Damascus after gaining his freedom, had escaped from his captors.

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In Santa Barbara, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the United States has been informed that Levin, 52, is in good condition but that there is no word on four other Americans missing in Lebanon.

“The President has been made aware of the final resolution of this, and we’re certainly pleased,” Speakes told reporters.

At a news conference Thursday in Washington, Lucille Levin expressed joy that her husband had gained his freedom, calling it “a real valentine present.” Similarly, a senior official at the State Department said the United States is “delighted to know what’s happened. It’s a wonderful Valentine’s Day present for Mrs. Levin.”

Release of 4 Sought

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The official, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, said: “We are obviously very interested and as determined as ever to get the remaining four prisoners released. Whatever set of circumstances brought about the release or the escape of Jerry Levin, we hope that there will be circumstances very, very soon that will bring about the release or escape of the other four.”

Agence France-Presse quoted Levin as saying in an interview Thursday: “I fled toward midnight from the two-story villa where I was being held. I walked for two hours before hearing a dog and human voices. I thought my kidnapers were at my heels, so I hid under a truck. But when I saw it was Syrian soldiers, I gave myself up.”

At the news conference, Levin said that the building in which he was held was on a hillside. He said, however, he could not be very specific about the site because: “They took my glasses away, and I am very nearsighted. I could not see.”

He said that he believed others being held in the same building because he heard four knocks each morning from people signaling to their guards that they wanted to leave the bathroom, which was adjacent to his room.

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“But the voices were muffled, and I could not tell whether they were speaking English,” he said.

Levin, the Beirut bureau chief for CNN, disappeared last March 7. In his interview with Agence France-Presse, he said he was abducted by a gunman who was about 20 years old.

Although the journalist said he did not know who his captors were, a man identifying himself as a representative of the shadowy extremist group Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War) claimed in a telephone call in Beirut on Thursday that the group had released Levin.

The State Department official said that he did not know what efforts--including private negotiations and prayers--had brought about the journalist’s freedom. “Whatever worked, let’s hope it keeps on working,” he said.

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However, the official said that Levin’s escape will not influence the U.S. approach to similar cases. The U.S. position on “dealing with terrorists is quite clear,” the official said. “We’re not prepared to make any concessions. On the other hand, we certainly would like to see people released.”

Earlier, at her news conference, Lucille Levin appeared with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who last year negotiated the release of Lt. Robert O. Goodman Jr., a U.S. Navy flier being held by Syria. Both she and Jackson portrayed the escape of Levin as presenting a wider opportunity to seek peace in the Middle East.

Lucille Levin, who visited Damascus last November in efforts to secure her husband’s release, said she wanted “to make this count in the best way we can for opening a window and for opening a dialogue for peace in the Middle East.”

‘Use This Occasion’

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Jackson, a presidential candidate last year who often has advocated additional U.S. talks with the Syrians, said Levin’s freedom is part of “an initiative” and that U.S. officials should “use this occasion to move on toward” peace in the region.

When asked about his role in seeking Levin’s freedom, Jackson--who left his sickbed to appear at the news conference--said that he and Lucille Levin were “prayer partners.” He added he had contacted Syrian officials here and in Syria, as well as officials from Lebanon and Iran, about the kidnaped journalist’s plight.

Jackson displayed an Agence France-Presse photograph of Levin, which was described by his wife as “beautiful.” In the photo, Levin sports a beard and his hair appears disheveled. He also appears thin but shows no apparent signs of mistreatment.

The State Department official said that CNN is sending a plane to Damascus and that the White House is making a second plane available to meet him, probably in Frankfurt. “We hope it would be in the next 24 hours,” he added.

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London Videotape

Hopes for Levin’s safety rose significantly 2 1/2 weeks ago when a videotape allegedly made in Lebanon surfaced in London. In the tape, U.S. diplomat William Buckley, who was kidnaped last March 16, said that he, Levin and a third American hostage, Presbyterian minister Benjamin Weir, were well.

Buckley, 56, and Weir, 60, are still missing, as are two other Americans: Father Lawrence Jenco, head of the Catholic Relief Services offices in Beirut, and Peter Kilburn, 60, a librarian at the American University of Beirut.

In a related development, former U.S. heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali said in London on Thursday that he plans to visit Iran and Lebanon in a bid to free the four Americans and a captive Saudi Arabian.

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