Hundreds of Muslim extremists shouting "Death to America! Death to Reagan! Death to Israel!" stormed onto a Beirut airport runway Friday to show support for Shia Muslim gunmen holding hostage 40 Americans from a hijacked TWA jetliner.
In a scene reminiscent of the Iranian hostage crisis that ended in 1981, many demonstrators carried huge posters of Iran's fundamentalist Shia Muslim leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. People in the crowd stamped on American and Israeli flags and set them afire to a chorus of shouts.
As the hostage crisis persisted for an eighth day, there were no signs of movement on the diplomatic front in efforts to free the captive Americans, although Muslim officials said Friday that two of the hostages might be released because of illness.
An airport official and an official of the Lebanese Shia militia Amal told reporters that Shia leaders were "examining the condition" of Jimmy D. Palmer, 48, of Little Rock, Ark. But members of Palmer's family later were told by the State Department that he had been taken to Beirut's American University Hospital for a checkup, found to be in good health and returned to his captors.
The two officials here, both of whom spoke on condition that their names not be disclosed, also said that Claude E. Whitmoyer of Severn, Md., might be freed but that they did not know the nature of his illness, if any.
Palmer's family said he has high blood pressure and a heart condition and that he was returning home from his job with a U.S. firm in Saudi Arabia for a heart catheterization when the plane was hijacked.
Meanwhile, Beirut's respected An Nahar newspaper said the United States has made contact with the Soviet Union on the hijacking, but there was no independent confirmation of the report.
The hijackers and Nabih Berri, leader of Amal, say that the captives will not be freed until Israel releases about 760 Lebanese, most of them Shia Muslims, that Israeli forces detained during their withdrawal from southern Lebanon. The detainees are held in Atlit prison near the Israeli port of Haifa.
Israel has said it would consider releasing the detainees in exchange for the hostages only if requested to do so by Washington. President Reagan has said no such request will be made lest it appear that the United States was yielding to terrorism, something that could provoke new incidents.
Secret Beirut Locations
Thirty-seven of the Americans have been held in secret locations in and around Beirut by Amal militiamen and the hijackers since soon after the Boeing 727 landed here for the third time last Sunday.
Three American crewmen of TWA Flight 847 were held aboard the plane, although there was some indication after Friday's protest demonstration that they, too, may have been taken off.
Berri, who also is justice minister in the nominal government of this war-ravaged land, has taken responsibility for the hostages' welfare.
The hijacking began June 14 when two Shia gunmen seized the plane after it left Athens for Rome and forced it to shuttle between Beirut and Algiers. Most of the 153 passengers and crew on board when it was seized were freed during stops at the two Mediterranean capitals, but a U.S. Navy petty officer, Robert Dean Stethem, 23, of Waldorf, Md., was shot to death and dumped from the plane during a stop in Beirut.
Friday's rally, the first major demonstration here in support of the hijackers, involved about 700 men and women who marched out of the Shia slums adjacent to the airport in a long, noisy column, shouting their slogans.
The outsize likenesses of Khomeini glowered from above the marchers, as they did at similar scenes during the 444 days that American hostages were held in Iran.
Half the crowd marched to within 600 yards of the parked jetliner, led by three carloads of gunmen from the Hezbollah (Party of God), the radical Shia group that organized the demonstration.
There were brief scuffles with Amal militiamen, who control the battle-scarred airport south of Beirut.
Dozens of Amal militiamen ringed the plane, brandishing automatic rifles and pistols, apparently fearing that the demonstrators might surge toward it.
"Where are they (the demonstrators) now? Try and keep them away," a hijacker in the cockpit shouted by radio to the airport control tower.
The plane then taxied to a distant corner of the airport, but it was not clear whether Capt. John L. Testrake and his two American crewmen were at the controls.
"All the foreigners have been taken off the plane," an airport source said without elaborating.
Three gunmen with the Hezbollah group, their heads covered by blue hoods, told the crowd to stay back. A mobile staircase was moved close to the crowd, and a Shia clergyman in a white turban mounted it with a bullhorn to thunder imprecations against the United States and Israel.
'The Arrogant World'
A member of the hooded trio identified himself as one of the hijackers and read a brief statement from the staircase.
He said that the hijackers' main goals are the release of the Lebanese prisoners held by Israel and "to declare to the arrogant world that we, as deprived people, are able to rub America's nose in the mud."
"We are not terrorists and we want a peaceful solution without bloodletting, because we respect the blood of all people, even the American blood," he said.
"We tell America and Israel that until now we haven't acted negatively. But we can't be patient for a long time . . . and you will see what you don't like if you don't respond to our demands."
Bearded men wearing green Islamic headbands and waving black flags proclaimed "God is great!" Joined by scores of women clad in head-to-toe black chadors, they made clenched-fist salutes and shouted: "Death to the great Satan, capitalist America!"
A young boy, almost lost in the angry crowd, held a banner aloft that read: "America Is the Mother of Terrorism."
A demonstrator who identified himself as Khalil said: "Many of us have been buying explosives to stop the Americans if they come. You only need explosives and cars to face any army."
The protesters dispersed after about two hours. As they left the airport, they halted at the former U.S. Marine headquarters on the perimeter and paid homage to the driver of a suicide truck bomb that killed 241 American servicemen Oct. 23, 1983.