Israelis Say They Will Free 31 Muslims Today : Berri Unmoved, Says Hostages Will Remain in Custody Until All 766 Lebanese Are Released
The Israeli government announced Sunday that it will release 31 of the 766 Lebanese detainees that it is holding in a prison near Haifa, and U.S. and Israeli leaders quickly closed ranks to deny that the announcement was linked in any way to demands of hijackers holding 40 American hostages in Beirut.
Israel said that the 31 prisoners--26 of them Shia Muslims and 5 of them Sunni Muslims--will be released at 11 a.m. local time today and turned over to the Red Cross at Rosh Hanikra on the Israeli-Lebanese border.
After the announcement, Nabih Berri, head of the major Lebanese Shia Muslim militia, who has been negotiating on behalf of the hijackers, said none of the hostages will be freed until Israel releases all 766 Lebanese prisoners, most of whom are Shias.
‘Matter of Israeli Law’
Returning from a weekend at Camp David, President Reagan, replying to shouted questions at the White House helicopter pad, said the Israeli decision “is a matter of Israeli law” and added, “It has nothing to do with our hostages.” He observed that “Berri seems to be the only one that is making a linkage between that (freeing the 31) and our hostages.”
In reply to the barely audible query, “Are you ruling out a military response?” Reagan answered, “Yes.”
The White House press office declined to say whether Reagan was referring simply to a military rescue attempt, which he virtually ruled out at his news conference last week, or to a post-crisis retaliation against groups associated with the hijackers. Reagan said last week that a retaliation that harmed innocent bystanders “would be a terrorist act in itself.”
Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who was awakened at 2 a.m. by a telephone call from Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres advising him of the decision to free the 31, likewise insisted that no connection should be drawn between the Israeli action and the hijackers’ demands.
“It’s important for us not to allow a group of terrorists to create a connection by asserting it,” Shultz told interviewers on ABC-TV’s “This Week With David Brinkley.” To do so, he warned, would merely invite future terrorists “who have a grievance somewhere to grab Americans and then assert a connection and cause us to try to put pressure on somebody.”
Also speaking from Israel to U.S. television interviewers, Peres and Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin strongly supported the Reagan Administration’s expressed refusal to yield to hijackers’ demands and insisted that the release of the 31 is entirely a matter of Israeli legal procedure.
Peres, on NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” said the decision was reached “a few weeks ago and passed through our legislative process.” Rabin, on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said the Red Cross was notified of the decision on Friday so that the 31 prisoners could be returned to Lebanon through International Red Cross channels today.
“We are bound by Israeli law,” Rabin explained.
Under Israeli law, prisoners held without charge--as were the 766 Lebanese transferred from detention in southern Lebanon during Israel’s three-stage withdrawal of the bulk of its forces from that country--have the right to appeal their internment to an Israeli district court.
Freed Without Fanfare
Rabin explained that nine of the 31 to be freed today appealed their internment two weeks ago and that a court ruled in their favor.
In the cases of the other 22, the army, in a review of their situations, anticipated that the court would free them if they were to appeal. It was therefore decided to release them, as other prisoners transferred from Lebanon have previously been released, “without fanfare or public notice,” Rabin said.
“Therefore,” Rabin insisted, “it is not linked whatsoever to the problem that the United States, Israel and the whole world are facing today in regard to the hostages in Beirut.”
Berri, leader of the Amal militia and justice minister in the shaky government of Lebanese President Amin Gemayel, is considered a moderate among the various Shia Muslim factions in Beirut. In several interviews Sunday, Berri refused to relax the hijackers’ demand, which is that all Lebanese detainees in Israeli hands be released before the 40 passengers and crew members from TWA Flight 847 would be set free.
“It is out of order, what they (Israel) said, because we are waiting for 731 (sic), not 31,” Berri told CBS News. “I see no connection between our demand and what Israel did,” he told NBC.
More ominously, Berri made it clear that his authority to speak for the more radical Shia factions is limited or nil, and he warned that any move by him to release some of the hostages could endanger the remainder.
Some Out of Control
The three crew members of the aircraft remain under direct control of the hijackers at Beirut airport, and Berri admitted that “only 30 or 31" of the 37 passengers are under the protection of his Amal militiamen.
It is believed that the remaining six or seven passengers--variously believed to be those thought by the terrorists to have Jewish names or to have some official connection with the U.S. government or armed services--are held by Hezbollah (Party of God), a fanatical Shia militia with ties to the fundamentalist Islamic regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran.
The gunmen who hijacked Flight 847 June 14 on a flight from Athens to Rome are believed to be members of Hezbollah.
To free the 31 hostages under control of Amal, Berri said, “would break the contract between me and the hijackers"--and perhaps also weaken his claim to be a leader of the Lebanese Shias.
‘It Would Be a Danger’
“If I release the 31, what do you think would happen for the others?” Berri demanded rhetorically of an NBC interviewer. “I cannot release them all, because they are not all under my control; you know that. If I release part of them, it would be a danger for the others.”
In a statement that appeared to contradict Berri, a high-ranking Amal official was quoted by the Associated Press in Beirut as saying that Hezbollah gunmen were guarding all 40 American hostages in different locations around Beirut while Amal militiamen were acting only as unarmed “observers.”
The official, demanding anonymity, said that Hezbollah conducted the hijacking and that Amal, in its role as the dominant Shia organization, took charge of the negotiations in Beirut, AP reported. When Amal sought to have the Americans transferred from the plane to secret locations in West Beirut, Hezbollah protested, fearing that it would lose control of the hostages, the official was quoted as saying. As a compromise, joint teams were formed to guard them, he said.
Problems With Hijackers
The Amal official said the more moderate Amal militiamen sometimes had problems with Hezbollah. “For instance, when we asked them to release a sick man--Robert Peel--we had a hard time to make them accept. They said if we let one go, then others would want to go too,” he was quoted as saying.
Peel, from Hutchinson, Kan., was released and flown home last week. Peel’s son is still being held.
The official said there are 17 different Hezbollah groups, some financed and directed by Libya and others by the Palestine Liberation Organization, and that they receive their money through the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, Syria.
But he said it was unclear which group hijacked the TWA plane.
The official said Amal had nothing to do with the hijacking and had no prior knowledge of it. “We are against kidnapings,” he said.
Meanwhile, the State Department dismissed as “wishful thinking” a report in the Beirut newspaper An Nahar that a formal swap arrangement between Israel, Amal and the hijackers had been worked out through Red Cross and Swiss intermediaries, and a Swiss government spokesman in Bern likewise dismissed the report as “totally untrue.”
A member of the Beirut task force at the State Department said that Switzerland and Austria have both offered “good offices” in the crisis but that so far such contacts have been used only as a way to transmit messages.
Michel Pache, the Swiss spokesman, said “it is correct that Switzerland is mediating in a way, however, if playing the postman can be described as mediation.”