Captors Free 2 Americans, Greek Singer
Shia Muslim hijackers Tuesday freed two Americans and a Greek folk singer who referred to his captors as “nice people” but were still holding about 40 American hostages in their effort to gain the release of 766 prisoners held in Israel.
Nabih Berri, chief of the main Shia militia Amal, who has assumed responsibility for the hostages, said the remaining captives could be freed “within 24 hours” if the Shia detainees are released. Israel said it would free the Shias if requested to do so by the United States, but Washington said it would not make such a request.
“The matter is now on the American side of the table,” said Berri, who is also Lebanon’s justice minister.
President Reagan at his Washington press conference Tuesday in effect responded by demanding immediate release of the hostages “without condition.”
Earlier, the Reagan Administration called the piecemeal release of the hostages, originally numbering 153, “uncivilized behavior in its worst form.” It said the continued captivity blocks Israel’s plan, announced before the TWA jet was seized last Friday, to set the Shia prisoners free in stages.
Berri said all hostages were taken off the captive Boeing 727 and were being held in small groups in the Shia enclaves of West and South Beirut. He assured reporters that all the hostages were being well cared for. “I even check their menus. . . . I check what they eat, where they sleep.”
An airport official said, however, that pilot John L. Testrake of Richmond, Mo., remained on the red-and-white aircraft.
“The control tower talked to him this evening and his voice is recorded on tape,” the official said. “He called the control tower from the plane as a matter of routine, checking his microphone.”
Hijackers still aboard the jetliner renewed their demand for the release of the Shias held by Israel. One hijacker, giggling, said in a radio conversation with the tower: “Remember, we will strike American interests and we will show America what it has not seen yet. We might even reach the White House.”
Those released Tuesday were singer Demis Roussos, his American secretary Pamela Smith, and Arthur N. Targontsidis, 18, a Greek-American of Brockton, Mass., who has been a student in Greece.
They were turned over to the Greek ambassador during a news conference at Berri’s sandbagged home in war-torn West Beirut and boarded a ship later for Larnaca, Cyprus.
Targontsidis said he was held with a “group of five,” but did not identify the others.
Roussos, smiling and occasionally patting Berri on the shoulder, referred to the Shia militiamen in the room as “these good people” and said he sang for his captors.
Smith, whose hometown was not immediately known, said of the hijackers, “We greatly appreciated their hospitality.”
Both Roussos and Smith appeared to be unaware of the hijackers’ murder of an American serviceman aboard the plane, Navy 2nd Class Petty Officer Robert D. Stethem, 23, of Waldorf, Md. His body was returned to the United States on Tuesday aboard an Air Force plane.
“He loved his country with a young man’s love, . . . and he served his country with vigor and faith,” Vice President George Bush said in a brief statement as Stethem’s flag-draped casket was carried off the plane by a Navy honor guard at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington.
Bassam Tleiss, Berri’s representative at the airport, had told the hijackers Monday that all Greek captives must be freed because Greek authorities released their accomplice, Ali Atweh.
Terrorist Missed Plane
Atweh, who told police he was a member of the hijack team, was arrested at the Athens airport Friday when he was unable to board the plane because no seats were available. He joined the TWA plane after his release, at one of the two stops in Algiers.
Berri said in French that if Israel does not free the Shia prisoners, then “I, as a mediator, will wash my hands of the case.”
When asked if that was a deadline, he responded in English: “When I see nobody obey (respond to) me, then I take my hands off.”
Berri said that the Arabs being held by Israel at a camp in Atlit near Haifa “are civilians.”
He added: “There are only 50 or 60 among them who were doing anything for which they could be arrested. There were women and girls and people who were going to the hospital to give blood for people wounded in fighting. There is no difference between people who are kidnaped on the ground and those who are kidnaped in the air.”
State Department sources indicate about 40 Americans from the hijacked plane still are held, including as many as a dozen with “Jewish-sounding” names who were reported taken off the plane during an earlier stop in Beirut. Berri also said the remaining hostages number “about 40.”
‘No American Jews’
Asked about the “American Jews,” Berri said: “I do not have this information. There are no American Jews. There are American people.”
Two young Shia gunmen seized TWA Flight 847 soon after it left Athens last Friday for Rome with 153 people aboard. Most were freed during previous stops in Beirut and Algiers.
At least a dozen other armed Shias joined the hijackers aboard the plane.
Berri said the hijackers are not members of his Amal militia, but he agrees with their demands.
The hundreds of Shias whose release is demanded were captured by Israel during its withdrawal from southern Lebanon, on grounds that they either plotted or carried out attacks on Israeli units.
“The Americans said this (hijacking) is against the law,” Berri said. “Which law? Did the Israelis come to (invade) our homeland by law? Did they take 700 Lebanese prisoners by law?”
He said his decision to evacuate the hostages from the plane early Monday was prompted by American and Israeli naval movements in the Mediterranean. “They were in the sea and I’m afraid maybe something will happen to these people I’m responsible for,” Berri said.