Shia Muslim extremists warned Wednesday that the seven Americans they are still holding captive in Lebanon will face "a black fate" if the United States retaliates for the hijacking of TWA Flight 847.
In answer, Secretary of State George P. Shultz said bluntly, "We don't respond to threats," and he hinted that the need to halt terrorism, as well as concern for the safety of the kidnap victims, will figure in any decision on punitive action.
U.S. efforts to close the Beirut airport--the first retaliatory measure announced after the seizure of the TWA jet and the killing of one of its passengers--will continue, officials said. And White House spokesman Larry Speakes held out the possibility that the U.S. response could be widened, telling reporters that other options "could be decided in increments, step by step."
According to the Associated Press, the extremist group Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), said Wednesday in a handwritten statement in Lebanon: "The seven Americans with us will face a black fate if the American Administration commits any foolhardiness against our people."
At a news conference, Shultz reiterated the Reagan Administration's view of the Beirut airport as a haven for hijackers, declaring, "We must think not only about the present, but we must think about the future and recognize that we have a place here that has become a genuine menace."
Nonetheless, he concluded, "We are very concerned and have been working in every way we can think of to obtain the release of the seven hostages being held--and we'll continue to do so."
The campaign directed at ending air traffic to and from Lebanon was announced Monday, one day after the 39 hostages from the TWA flight were released.
In the Administration's view, terminating flights that use the Beirut airport would reduce the risk of airliner seizures in the Middle East. The airport has been linked to 15% of the hijackings outside of the United States in the last 15 years, according to Shultz.
However, the airport was not operating when Flight 847, hijacked as it left Athens on June 14, was forced to land there--and thus some observers have questioned whether the new Administration policy would have any real impact in similar cases.
In Beirut, Nabih Berri, leader of the Shia Amal militia, which took responsibility for the 39 hostages after the hijacking, raised the possibility of seeking the aid of the International Court of Justice in The Hague to oppose the Administration's campaign.
The Administration's effort also drew the criticism of Clovis Maksoud, ambassador of the League of Arab States, who said Arab ambassadors believe Lebanon has been "targeted as a scapegoat to satisfy internal American pressures for retribution." Maksoud, who is Lebanese, sought a meeting of Shultz and Arab envoys in Washington to discuss a reversal of the Administration's campaign against the airport.
The seven Americans, kidnaped over the last 16 months, are: William Buckley, 56, a U.S. Embassy political officer; the Rev. Benjamin Weir, 60, a Presbyterian minister; Peter Kilburn, 60, a librarian at the American University of Beirut; Father Lawrence Jenco, 50, a Roman Catholic priest; Terry A. Anderson, 37, chief Middle East correspondent of the Associated Press; David P. Jacobsen, 54, director of the American University Hospital, and Thomas Sutherland, 53, dean of agriculture at the university.
Times Staff Writer Don Shannon contributed to this story.