Berri Frees Ailing Hostage, Offers to Transfer Others
Shia Muslim leader Nabih Berri today freed a hostage who has heart trouble--on the 13th day of captivity--and offered to transfer the remaining 39 to a Western embassy in Beirut to be held until Israel frees 735 Lebanese prisoners.
Both France and Switzerland expressed willingness to take custody of the hostages.
France said the decision was not related to any proposal made by Berri, who also said two Frenchmen kidnaped May 22 will be freed when the crisis is resolved. A spokesman for the Swiss Embassy said the mission was prepared “in principle” to take the hostages.
In Jerusalem, diplomatic sources said another 70 of 735 remaining Lebanese prisoners demanded by Berri and the hijackers would be freed Thursday from the Atlit military prison.
The plan could be temporarily halted, however, because of the release today of Jimmy Dell Palmer, 48, for medical reasons. Israel, which released 31 Lebanese Monday, wants no direct link established between that move and the release of any of its Shia detainees.
In Washington, the White House and State Department imposed a news blackout today and refused to comment on Berri’s proposal to transfer the hostages.
Reagan met with his national security advisers for the third straight day and later with Republican senators, asking them to make no public comment on apparent negotiations with Syrian President Hafez Assad and Berri aimed at resolving the crisis.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes and State Department officials answered dozens of questions about developments with “no comment” or by reiterating the U.S. demand that all hostages be freed immediately.
Another Release Possible
Berri told a news conference that hostage Simon Grossmayer, who had a lung removed several years ago, might also be freed within the next 24 hours “for health reasons.”
During a news conference in the bomb shelter at his home, Berri told reporters the remaining hostages, including three crewmen aboard the grounded TWA jetliner at Beirut airport, could be transferred to a Western embassy in Beirut--"Swiss, French, something like that, what they choose"--until the matter is resolved.
He said if that was not acceptable, they could be transferred to Syria.
“If they don’t want Damascus, then Tehran--no problem,” Berri added.
He said he had not discussed the transfer of the hostages with Syrian President Assad or with Western ambassadors. He said the hostages would only be moved from their secret Beirut hide-outs if he received a promise they would not be freed until the Atlit detainees were freed.
Berri also repeated an earlier demand that U.S. warships leave the Lebanese coast and demanded a pledge from the United States and Israel not to attack Lebanon after the release of the hostages.
Berri, who has taken personal responsibility for the hostages, said any embassy that takes them must agree not to turn them loose until Israel frees the 735 Lebanese. Most of those are Shias, accused by Israel of plotting or carrying out attacks on Israeli units withdrawing from south Lebanon.
Asked about seven other Americans kidnaped or missing in Lebanon since March, 1984, Berri said: “All the time, I try. I tried before and I try now and I will try in the future” to find out about them.
Berri, who also is Lebanon’s justice minister, says he agrees with the hijackers’ demand for the release of the Lebanese prisoners and that his men are guarding the hostages jointly with the radical Shia group Hezbollah.
Hezbollah gunmen hijacked the TWA jet June 14 on an Athens-Rome flight, killed a U.S. Navy petty officer and freed more than 100 other passengers and crew.