U.S. Seeks Return of Earlier Captives : Wants 7 Beirut Kidnap Victims Released Also
President Reagan, hoping for what one official called “a package deal,” has decided to seek the release of seven Americans kidnaped in Beirut as well as the 39 hostages from TWA Flight 847, Administration officials said Thursday.
Amid continuing signs of diplomatic movement in Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem, however, the White House and State Department maintained official silence on the hostage crisis. There was no clear indication of progress toward turning the hostages over to Syria or a Western European embassy, as Shia Muslim leader Nabih Berri proposed on Wednesday.
Reagan made the decision to include the seven kidnap victims, seized on different occasions in Lebanon before the June 14 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, in the U.S. negotiating effort after meeting with his national security advisers on Wednesday, a senior Administration official said.
Stand Called Flexible
But a State Department official said he does not believe the United States has toughened its bargaining position. The release of the seven kidnap victims does not appear to be an inflexible condition, he said.
“I don’t think we’d reject the release of the 39 if it turns out we can’t get the other seven. It could turn out to complicate the thing.”
Earlier in the crisis, officials had avoided linking the two sets of hostages, and relatives of the seven kidnap victims said they had been told that they were not included in the negotiations.
It was not until Wednesday night that Secretary of State George P. Shultz added a mention of the hostage crisis to his speech before a San Francisco banquet commemorating the 40th anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter.
“We are working intensely on this matter, and we insist on release of our hostages, all 46 of them, immediately, unharmed and unconditionally,” Shultz said.
Vice President George Bush echoed Shultz’s comments Thursday during a visit to Brussels. “That’s right, no bargaining,” Bush said. “That’s always been the (U.S.) position. Release them all. Release them all.”
A senior Administration official said the two comments were made on Reagan’s orders, to send a signal to the hostages’ Shia Muslim captors--and the American public--that the President wants both sets of hostages freed.
The White House had faced increasing questions about why the seven were not clearly included in the negotiating effort. The issue could have turned into a presidential embarrassment today, when Reagan is scheduled to meet in Chicago with relatives of one of the seven kidnap victims, Father Lawrence Jenco, along with the families of 11 of the TWA hostages.
In addition to Jenco, 50, a Roman Catholic priest, the Americans kidnaped in Beirut are Terry A. Anderson, 37, a reporter for the Associated Press; William Buckley, 56, a U.S. Embassy political officer; David P. Jacobsen, 54, director of the American University Hospital in Beirut; Peter Kilburn, 60, a librarian at the American University; Thomas Sutherland, dean of the university’s school of agriculture; and the Rev. Benjamin Weir, 60, a Presbyterian minister.
All were abducted from the streets of Beirut over the last 16 months in kidnapings later claimed by callers identifying themselves as members of Islamic Jihad, a group believed to be part of Hezbollah, which also holds some of the TWA hostages. U.S. officials say Kilburn is feared dead because the kidnapers have sent photographs of all the other captives to Beirut newspapers, but not of him.
In Beirut, an aide to Berri said he would relay the demand to the kidnapers.
Administration sources indicated that U.S. contacts with Berri, leader of the Lebanese Shia Muslim group Amal, and with the government of Syria continued on Thursday, but they refused to comment further, citing a White House gag order.
The White House also canceled a planned briefing on the crisis for members of the Senate. “Things are happening,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.).
Nevertheless, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said Reagan plans to stick to his schedule and fly to Chicago today to lobby for his tax reform plan as well as his meeting with the hostages’ relatives.
Berri made his proposal to transfer the 39 hostages to a European embassy in Beirut or to Syria one day after the White House warned that it would give diplomatic efforts only a few more days to work before deciding on sanctions against Lebanon, such as closing Beirut International Airport or imposing an economic blockade.
Berri told a television interviewer Thursday that Reagan has telephoned Syrian President Hafez Assad to discuss a solution to the crisis, now in its 15th day. The White House refused to confirm or deny his account.
U.S.-Israel Accord Told
In Jerusalem, Israeli television reported that the United States and Israel have reached an understanding that the Israelis will free their 735 Arab prisoners only after the 39 Americans are released. It was the first reported agreement between the two sides on how to deal with the demands of the Shia gunmen holding the Americans.
Previously, Israel had said it would free its prisoners gradually, in keeping with previous defense policy and regardless of the gunmen’s demands.
In Damascus, the official newspaper of Syria’s ruling Baath Party said Assad was actively seeking a peaceful end to the crisis and warned the United States against any military action.
“President Reagan has asked Syria to help in this case, and Syria has not hesitated to exert its utmost to find a way out of this delicate situation which U.S. acts have led to,” an editorial in the newspaper Al Baath said.
A State Department official noted that the editorial made no mention of the Shia demand for the release of the Arab detainees in Israel--a sign that Syria may not insist on an explicit link between the two groups’ freedom. The United States and Israel have rejected such a link.
Weir’s Son Encouraged
John Weir, son of the Presbyterian minister who was kidnaped in Beirut on May 8, 1984, said he is “very encouraged” that Assad had indicated his willingness to become involved in the crisis.
“It’s very important, in our case in particular, because he--probably more than anyone else--can influence who has my father,” Weir said in a telephone interview from New York, where he was preparing to leave for California to join other family members. “The group that has my father is one of the more extreme groups within Hezbollah and the Syrian president is as likely to have influence over them as anyone is. I’m very encouraged by this development.”
Weir noted that Islamic Jihad, which has claimed responsibility for Weir’s kidnaping, is headquartered in the city of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon--"territory that is nominally under Syrian control.”
Thus, he said, “I think the Syrian president’s involvement can produce some positive results. He did in the release of Jeremy Levin,” a Cable News Network reporter kidnaped in 1984 and released earlier this year.
“He was held by the same group that holds my father. Not long ago there was a Saudi Arabian vice consul kidnaped and he was released about a month ago. So there is a pattern of Syrians being in a position to get the men out. Therefore, a public commitment from the president of Syria that he will do his best to assist is a very important one,” Weir said.