Red Cross Visits 40 American Hostages to Check Treatment and Health, Berri Says
Red Cross officials Tuesday visited all 40 Americans held hostage in Beirut by hijackers, checking on their health and treatment in captivity, Shia Muslim leader Nabih Berri announced.
A spokesman for the International Red Cross confirmed in New York that the contacts took place but declined to provide any details.
“They are seeing them and checking them right now,” Berri told CBS News earlier. He did not disclose the location of the meetings.
The Red Cross access appeared to be a reaction by Amal, the Shia militia led by Berri, to increasing international pressure over the safety of the hostages, hijacked on TWA Flight 847 from Athens to Rome 12 days ago.
Berri took responsibility for their safety and agreed to represent the hijackers after the commandeered plane landed in Beirut last week for a third time.
Crew Still Aboard
The contacts with the Red Cross could also help clear up a lingering controversy over the hostages’ whereabouts. Berri has acknowledged that, after being removed from the plane, the 37 passengers were divided up in small groups and held in locations around Beirut. The plane’s three crew members are believed to be still aboard the Boeing 727.
Unconfirmed reports emanating from the United States have suggested that five or six of the passengers--including some with U.S. government identification papers and others whose names sounded Jewish to the hijackers-- may have been separated and are now being held outside Beirut. One report suggested that this group has been taken to Baalbek, the headquarters of a number of fanatic Shia groups loyal to Iran.
Berri has denied those reports.
Meanwhile, Lebanese officials reacted cautiously to the Reagan Administration’s threat of economic embargo and closure of the Beirut airport if diplomatic efforts do not soon win the hostages’ freedom.
Holding Trump Card
Berri declined to comment on the “options” outlined in Washington earlier in the day by White House spokesman Larry Speakes.
Akef Haidar, Amal’s chief political spokesman, told reporters after Tuesday’s White House announcement that the militia still holds the trump card because, if the United States continues to threaten action, Amal can still decide to stop acting as a mediator and return the captives to the hijackers.
The hijackers, believed to be members of the fundamentalist Shia group known as Hezbollah (Party of God), have been demanding the release of more than 700 prisoners taken from southern Lebanon to Israel by withdrawing Israeli forces.
Israel freed 31 of the prisoners, 27 Shias and four Sunni Muslims, on Monday, and maintained that the release was unconnected to the hostage crisis in Beirut. Berri, however, insisted that all the Lebanese being held by Israel must be released before the Americans could go free.
Options Drawn Up
At a press briefing in Washington, Speakes said President Reagan ordered his national security staff to draw up a list of options designed to increase pressure on the hijackers and their supporters. One option was an economic embargo on Beirut and the forced closure of Beirut airport.
Lebanese generally scoffed at the implicit threat, arguing that in 10 years of civil war the population has become hardened to just about every privation and that the airport has often been closed by fighting.
Furthermore, the Lebanese capacity to carry on trade in times of adversity has been a matter of honor here since before the Crusades. “Doesn’t your President realize that we have been smuggling along this coast for 1,000 years?” asked one bemused citizen.
Most of Lebanon’s goods flow into the country by way of a dozen or more illegally operated ports that have flourished in recent years in the absence of a strong central government.
Blockade of Syrian Port
In order to effectively quarantine Beirut, it would be necessary to blockade the Syrian port of Latakia and the Damascus airport, from which goods pass into northern Lebanon. Such a move by the United States might risk a confrontation with the Soviet Union, which is Syria’s most powerful supporter.
If the Reagan Administration forces the closure of Beirut airport, it would probably be considered little more than an inconvenience to war-weary Lebanese. Many Christians already refuse to travel through predominantly Muslim West Beirut to reach the airfield and instead use a boat service to Cyprus, where they join international flights at Larnaca. Muslims frequently travel by road to Damascus to avoid flying out of Beirut.
Once the crossroads of the Middle East, the shell-pocked Beirut airport is now used only by the Lebanese national carrier, Middle East Airlines. The last few airlines flying into Beirut halted flights after hijackers commandeered a plane belonging to Alia, the Jordanian airline, and later blew it up after freeing their hostages in Beirut.
Those hijackers, also believed to be Shia Muslims, escaped without a trace.