Hostages’ Plea to Israel: Free Shias : Americans Ask Reagan Not to Attempt Rescue
Five American hijack hostages, brought to a news conference Thursday by their Shia Muslim captors, said they are well but under strain and beseeched President Reagan not to attempt any rescue that would lead to “unwarranted deaths among innocent people.”
They also urged Israel to release the 766 mostly Shia prisoners being held at Atlit prison outside the port of Haifa, as demanded by the hostages’ captors, to facilitate their own freedom. “We sincerely ask and pray that this task be expeditiously completed,” they said.
They also said the hostages are disappointed that the Reagan Administration has not done more to secure their freedom.
Chaos at Conference
As diplomatic efforts were pressed to end the seven-day hostage drama, gunmen of the Shia Muslim Amal militia headed by Nabih Berri produced the five American hostages before journalists at a chaotic news conference at Beirut airport. In all, 40 Americans from a hijacked TWA airliner are being held here.
Hostage Allyn B. Conwell, 39, of Houston, who acted as spokesman for the group, said he had seen 37 of the hostages, being held at secret locations in Beirut, and “can verify they are all in good health.”
The pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer, who also became hostages when TWA Flight 847 was hijacked by gunmen on an Athens-Rome flight last Friday, remained aboard their Boeing 727 at the airport. They were seen by reporters Wednesday.
“We’re all under a tremendous amount of strain and tension and concern,” Conwell said, calling the hostages “pawns in this tense game of nerves.”
“I think almost unilaterally, the people who were taken hostage, the men I have visited with and talked with . . . agreed that the greatest terror of all--of all--was the helplessness of knowing that our families were living through a living hell of terror, in fear of losing us, in fear of losing our love, in fear of our dying.
“The people in general that are here are in good health, in good spirits. I think they have done a hell of a job of standing up to these adverse conditions,” he said.
Plea to President
Reading from a handwritten statement, Conwell said: “We as a group do most importantly want to beseech President Reagan, and our fellow Americans, to refrain from any form of military or violent means as an attempt, no matter how noble or heroic, to secure our freedom.”
His voice was drowned out several times by shouting, and the news conference was interrupted at one point. There were scuffles between the Amal militiamen and some of the journalists. Militiamen beat some of the journalists and smashed cameras.
The other four Americans at the conference were: Thomas V.S. Cullins, 42, Burlington, Vt.; Peter Hill, 57, Schaumburg, Ill.; Arthur Toga, 33, St. Louis, and Vincente Garza, 53, Laredo, Tex.
The hostages appeared ill at ease among their captors and evaded sensitive questions about the hijacking of Flight 847, which had 153 people aboard when it was seized. The other hostages were released at stops in Beirut and Algiers, and the hijackers killed a U.S. Navy man.
Look of a Tea Party
The captives, most of them unshaven, sat at a long table covered with a white cloth. Plates of cake and bottles of water gave it the look of a tea party, but the table was ringed by Shia militiamen in camouflage fatigues, some armed with automatic weapons.
Cullins told reporters that the hostages “definitely fear” a rescue attempt and added, “We urge, at all costs, that no direct military intervention take place.”
“I’m in good health,” said Hill. “We have been sharing quarters near each other and we’ve had daily contact. We eat, we sleep, we smoke, we pray.”
Toga, on the verge of tears, said: “I miss my wife very much. I want to go home. I’m healthy, I’m being taken care of, but I want to go home very bad.”
Berri, the Amal leader, told CBS News correspondent Dan Rather in an interview earlier Thursday that he does not have control of six hostages removed from the plane last Friday but denied that they were singled out because because of their Jewish-sounding names.
However, informed sources in Washington quoted by the Washington Post said five or six of the captives being held separately are thought to be mostly U.S. military personnel, not those with the apparently Jewish names.
The Post’s sources conceded that there is no direct confirmation of this, but said that several factors being analyzed in Washington indicate that perhaps four of those separately held carried U.S. military identification cards.
The report added that there are indications that this smaller group is being held by members of the amorphous Islamic fundamentalist group Hezbollah, the Party of God, that may have engineered the original hijacking last Friday.
It suggested they are being held separately because Hezbollah does not fully trust Berri, a relative moderate who is seeking to negotiate an arrangement with the United States and Israel, under which all 40 Americans would be released in return for the freedom of more than 700 Lebanese, most of them Shias, being held prisoner in Israel.
Berri Accepts Onus
Berri, who is also Lebanon’s justice minister as well as minister for southern Lebanon, has taken personal responsibility for the hostages. He urged the Reagan Administration to “be less stubborn than Israel” and work to break the impasse in the talks.
Israel has told the United States it would not consider freeing the prisoners until Washington formally makes such a request. But the United States has refused to do so, and in Washington on Thursday, State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said there was no change in the U.S. position.
A possible solution to the crisis emerged when Berri said he has accepted a Swiss offer to host talks aimed at arranging a swap of the American captives for the Shia Muslims in Israel.
Swiss Foreign Minister Pierre Aubert suggested that “Swiss territory be the place for ending the hijacking operation and the negotiations needed in this regard,” Berri said.
“We accepted this proposal today (Thursday) and accepted our readiness to exchange the prisoners who are in Atlit with the plane’s hostages on Swiss territory if the other party accepted this,” Berri said. He gave no more details.
Officials from Algeria, who helped end the American hostage crisis in Iran in 1981, were also trying to work out a solution that would bring the hostages home.