Reagan Rules Out negotiations With Muslim Hijackers
President Reagan, flatly declaring that “America will never make concessions to terrorists,” Tuesday ruled out any negotiations with the Shia Muslim gunmen holding U.S. hostages in Beirut and called on the religious and political leaders of Lebanon to “end this crime now in the name of the God they worship.”
With the Shia terrorists still holding about 40 Americans seized in the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 last Friday, Reagan also spoke out forcefully against involving the United States in any direct effort to persuade Israel to yield to the terrorists’ demand for the release of 766 mostly Shia prisoners it now holds.
In rejecting concessions or bargaining, Reagan said: “To do so would only invite more terrorism. Nor will we ask nor pressure any other government to do so. Once we head down that path there will be no end to it, no end to the suffering of innocent people, no end to the bloody ransom all civilized nations must pay.”
No Immediate Retaliation
At the same time the President ruled out immediate military retaliation against the Shia terrorists hidden in the slums of Beirut.
Noting the difficulty in precisely identifying those involved in the seizure of Flight 847, Reagan said that any indiscriminate military response “would be a terrorist act in itself.”
The United States would retaliate for the hijacking if it could be certain who was responsible, he said, but “you can’t start shooting until you have someone in your gun sights.”
Confessing his frustration over the situation, the President said, “I’ve pounded a few walls when I’m alone about this.”
Reagan severely criticized former President Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage crisis and after taking office pledged to meet any terrorism with “swift and effective retribution.” He said Tuesday, though, that he was talking about “a situation in which a government was involved on the other side,” providing a clear target for retaliation.
In response to the crisis, he said, he has taken several steps, including directing Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, in cooperation with Secretary of State George P. Shultz, to explore immediately an expansion of the armed sky marshal program for better protection of passengers on international flights. He said he also has:
--Directed Shultz to issue an advisory for U.S. citizens traveling through the Athens International Airport, where the skyjackers boarded the plane, warning them of potential dangers. The warning would remain in effect until the Greek government has improved security there and complied with international agreements on prosecution and punishment of air pirates.
--Asked for a full explanation of the events surrounding the takeover of the aircraft in Athens.
--Appealed to all U.S. air carriers to review the “wisdom of continuing any flights into Athens until the security situation there improves.”
--Directed Shultz and Dole to report to him on whether the United States should terminate the service of foreign air carriers whose governments “do not honor appropriate international conventions or provide adequate security at their airports.”
Calls for New Security
Reagan also called upon all allied and friendly governments to redouble their efforts to improve airport security and to take other measures to prevent the hijacking of aircraft.
And he urged that “no American enter any Middle Eastern country that does not publicly condemn and disassociate itself from this atrocity and call for the immediately safe release of our citizens.”
During the 1980 campaign, Reagan repeatedly criticized the Carter Administration’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis. In February, 1980, campaigning in the Florida Republican primary, Reagan accused the Carter Administration of negotiating too long and said Carter should have given Iran an ultimatum.
“There comes a time when a government has got to be willing to set a date for their release and let them know privately what their option will be if they are not released as of that date,” Reagan said then. “I think we should have done it back about the end of the first or second week they were held.
“If you don’t do that, as long as they have the hostages they can just keep on demanding concessions until you’re groveling on the ground,” he said.
Reagan reiterated Tuesday night that the United States would refuse to negotiate with the Lebanese terrorists and that it would put no pressure on Israel to make concessions either. But White House spokesman Larry Speakes stepped up the process of indirect hand-signaling that has been going between Washington and Jerusalem since last weekend.
Without directly calling on Israel to free the 766 Arab detainees as the hijackers are demanding, Speakes said: “We would like to see them released"--but only after the remaining American hostages are freed.
“We firmly believe that this release can take place when the hijacking incident is successfully resolved,” he said. But he added that the United States is neither asking nor directly encouraging Israel to free the detainees, in keeping with the Administration’s policy of refusing any concessions to terrorists.
The Administration, though never calling publicly for their release, previously had protested Israel’s action in moving the detainees from southern Lebanon into Israel as a violation of international law, and Reagan again characterized it as such Tuesday night.
The President charged that the hijacking--far from speeding the prisoners’ release--had set back Israel’s plans for freeing them.
Reluctant to Act
In essence, the Administration hopes that the Shia terrorists in Beirut will release the American hostages once they are confident Israel will later release its prisoners. Reagan does not want to ask Israel for such a commitment lest he appear to be making concessions to the terrorists. And Israel for its part is reluctant to act without a direct U.S. request because that might cause internal political problems for Jerusalem’s fragile coalition government.
The President was grim-faced throughout a half-hour White House press conference which began less than an hour after the arrival at nearby Andrews Air Force Base of the body of Navy diver Robert Dean Stethem, who was savagely beaten and then shot to death by the terrorists.
‘Stain on Lebanon’
“This act of terrorism is a stain on Lebanon and particularly on those Lebanese in whose name it has been done,” Reagan said. “Those in Lebanon who commit these acts damage their country and their cause, and we hold them accountable.
“I call upon those holding our people to release them without condition. I call upon the leaders of Lebanon, political and religious, to meet their responsibilities and to do all that is necessary to end this crime now in the name of the God they worship. And I call on other governments to speak out and use their influence as well,” he said.
Reagan also said that the United States will not “give up” on the seven Americans who were kidnaped in Beirut in the 18 months before the hijacking.