Confusion Grows as Hostages Are Reported Taken Off Jet : Kept Safe in Beirut, Shia Says
All remaining American passengers were taken from a hijacked TWA jet at Beirut airport today to one or more secret locations in the city, Shia Muslim militia leader Nabih Berri said, because of fears they might be killed in a possible rescue attempt.
Berri, who is also Lebanon’s justice minister, said he was guaranteeing that the more than 30 passengers would not be harmed, but also said they would not be released until the demands of the hijackers are met.
The plane’s Shia hijackers, who commandeered the Athens-to-Rome flight last Friday with 153 people aboard and shuttled it between Beirut and Algeria all weekend, are demanding that Israel free 700 to 800 Shias captured during its withdrawal from southern Lebanon and that Spain release two Shias held there.
‘I Gave Guarantees’
“I gave guarantees to the hijackers that I will not release the hostages . . . without the release of the Atleet prisoners,” Berri told a news conference. Israel holds the captured Shias at a camp in the town of Atleet.
In Washington, a State Department official said the United States has “no reason to doubt” Berri’s statement that the hostages have been taken away.
But an airport official who is a member of Berri’s Amal militia said he personally served lunch to the hostages on the plane this afternoon, long after the time Berri said they had been moved.
“I took 40 chicken lunches. They (the hostages) washed their hands and began eating. They were all there,” he said shortly after Berri’s statement.
None Seen Leaving
Several other airport officials, who also declined to be identified, said no hostages left the plane after the release Sunday night of American Robert Peel Sr., who became ill and was taken by ambulance to a West Beirut hospital.
Israeli officials have indicated a willingness to turn the Shias loose if Washington will make a public request, but the Reagan Administration says Israel must make the decision.
“We do not make concessions and we do not encourage others to make concessions,” White House spokesman Larry Speakes said. “We do not ask others to do what we would not do,” Speakes said.
Berri said the hostages were taken off the plane after at least one unidentified ship and a helicopter appeared off the coast during the night.
Israeli gunboats were seen in the area on Sunday, and unconfirmed reports said that the U.S. Delta commando group has been moved to the Mediterranean.
“All the passengers are outside the plane. . . . All in one place in Beirut. . . . Amal men and the hijackers are with them,” Berri said at first in response to questions from reporters.
Asked later to confirm that all the hostages were held together, he said: “I think that. I think . . . I am not sure. They are outside (the airport). They are outside.”
If the Americans have been taken from the aircraft, it is possible that at least three separate groups of hostages are now being held in Beirut. One group of 12, including Greek singer Demis Rousses, was removed from the airliner earlier. And the senior attendant on Flight 847, Uli Derickson, told reporters that seven passengers with “Jewish-sounding names” were escorted off the plane during a previous stop in the Lebanese capital.
At least a dozen armed Shias are believed to have joined the original two hijackers aboard the red and white jet, which has traveled more than 8,500 miles since being hijacked. The terrorists killed one American and threw the body from the plane.