Berri Frees Ill Hostage, Offers to Move Others : U.S. Sees Hope for Solution in Shia Leader’s Proposal
Lebanese Shia leader Nabih Berri’s suggestion that the 39 American hostages in Beirut be removed from their captors and turned over to a third party could provide a breakthrough in the two-week-old crisis, Reagan Administration officials said Wednesday, but they warned that there is no assurance yet of the hostages’ quick release.
The White House imposed a ban on official comments on the hostage standoff amid several signs that delicate negotiations are under way:
--President Reagan met with his national security advisers.
--Secretary of State George P. Shultz cut short a trip to San Francisco to return to Washington this morning.
--Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) emerged from a meeting with the President to declare: “It’s at a very important stage. I’m very hopeful.”
Proposal by Berri
Berri, who has taken responsibility for the hostages seized by Shia gunmen in the June 14 hijacking of a TWA jet, released one of the Americans on Wednesday and offered to move the remaining 39 to the custody of either a Western European embassy in Beirut or the government of neighboring Syria.
The Shia leader said his offer depends on commitments that the hostages would be held until Israel released 735 Arab prisoners, that the U.S. Navy would keep its Mediterranean fleet at least 12 miles off Lebanon’s coast and that the United States and Israel would not retaliate after the hostages were freed.
State Department officials said the Administration is taking Berri’s suggestion seriously, adding that they hope his proposal--along with the intervention of Syria’s President Hafez Assad--will lead to an arrangement for the hostages’ speedy release.
Assad’s role is seen as potentially crucial because the hostage crisis is deeply enmeshed in the struggle between Berri, who heads the relatively moderate Amal militia, and more radical Shia groups represented by Hezbollah (Party of God). Syria backs Berri, while Hezbollah is supported by the Iranian regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini--nominally Syria’s ally, but in fact a rival for influence among Lebanon’s Shias.
Berri claimed responsibility for the hostages last week, apparently because he believed he could use them to force Israel to release its Arab prisoners quickly, thus strengthening his position in the internal Shia power struggle. However, the prospect of a long deadlock over the hostages--some of whom are held by Amal, others by Hezbollah--threatened to undermine Berri’s authority.
It is this prospect--and the specter of Iranian-backed Hezbollah gaining a dominant role--that may impel Assad to intervene to settle the crisis, U.S. officials said hopefully.
French, Swiss and Austrian officials also said they are working to see whether an agreement can be worked out.
U.S., Syria Consulting
“The proper solution is the prompt release of all the hostages,” one U.S. official said. “But it could be helpful to get them out from under the gunmen.”
White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Wednesday morning that the Administration was pleased with Berri’s decision to release hostage Jimmy Dell Palmer of Little Rock, Ark., who is ill. He said the United States and Syria are discussing ways to bring about release of the rest of the Americans.
“We’ve been in close touch with the government of Syria as part of our effort to resolve the situation,” he said. “President Assad has expressed a desire to be helpful and is in a position to be helpful. However, we’re not in a position to get into details.”
Speakes said the Administration also still believes that Israel should release the 735 Arab prisoners it holds, but that the two issues should not be linked. Israel released 31 Lebanese prisoners Monday, and Israeli sources said 70 more would go free soon, possibly today.
Later, however, after Reagan met with his foreign policy advisers for an hour, Speakes and other Administration spokesmen refused to provide any further information on the issue.
Turnabout From Threats
The silence was a turnabout from the previous day, when spokesmen announced that Reagan was considering a series of punitive options including an economic blockade of Lebanon and the forced closing of Beirut airport, apparently to pressure Berri toward finding a solution to the hostage dilemma.
A Lebanese source said Berri reacted to the U.S. threat by sending his principal deputy, retired Lebanese army Col. Akef Haidar, to Damascus for consultations with the Syrians. Berri’s announcement of his proposal followed.
Ships 20 Miles Offshore
One of the three conditions Berri set for his deal--that U.S. warships stay at least 12 miles off Lebanon--was already being met by the United States. Speakes said Wednesday that the battle group accompanying the aircraft carrier Nimitz has remained in international waters about 20 miles offshore.
The others--a promise that the hostages would be held until Israel released its prisoners, and a pledge not to retaliate--appeared more troublesome.
The Administration has rejected any explicit linkage between the American hostages and the Arab prisoners. And European diplomats said it would be difficult for their governments to take in the hostages without assurances that Israel planned to release the prisoners very quickly.
Reagan has also repeatedly threatened to retaliate against terrorists, although he has never actually ordered such a strike and more recently ruled out retaliation unless it could be precisely targeted.
Embassies Were Targets
The Administration also faces a difficult problem in negotiating any transfer of the hostages: Which move--to a Western embassy in Beirut or to Damascus--would be most effective in gaining their quick and safe release?
European embassies in predominantly Muslim West Beirut have been frequent targets of terrorist attacks and would leave the hostages still surrounded by Shia militias.
A move to Damascus would make the Americans, in effect, hostages of Syrian President Assad.
That, however, might be a step forward, one official said, since Assad has been willing to release prisoners in the past when it helped his worldwide standing.