No Sympathy for Hijackers, Conwell Says
Allyn B. Conwell, the Texas oil executive who was thrust into the public spotlight as spokesman for the 39 hostages held for 16 days in the Mideast, said Thursday that the hijackers of TWA Flight 847 should be hunted down and punished and that he has no sympathy for them.
He also said that he voluntarily removed himself from the role of spokesman as the hostages were being brought back to the United States from West Germany, primarily because he felt that the Reagan Administration no longer wanted him to speak for the group.
Conwell, in his first press conference since returning to the United States, said that he wanted to make clear that he was in no way sympathetic with the hijackers, who seized the plane as it flew from Athens to Rome on June 14 and the next day killed one of the passengers, Robert Dean Stethem, 23, a Navy petty officer and diver.
Conwell, 39, who has lived in the Mideast for most of the last 10 years, has come under some criticism--particularly by fellow hostage Peter W. Hill--for a statement he made expressing sympathy for Amal, the principal Shia Muslim militia in Beirut. On the ground in the Lebanese capital, Amal took control of most of the hostages from the hijackers, and its leader, Nabih Berri, was one of those who negotiated for the captives’ release.
In the controversial statement, Conwell was quoted as saying, “Fortunately or unfortunately, we find that many in our group have a profound sympathy for the cause or for the reasons that the Amal have in saying, ‘Israel, free my people.’ ”
On Thursday, Conwell said that he meant that he only had concern for the Shia Muslims of Lebanon, the poorest, most downtrodden religious sect in that strife-torn country, more than 550 of whom were among 766 Lebanese prisoners being held in an Israeli prison at the time of the hijacking.
“I have absolutely no sympathy for and I have absolutely no understanding for the act of murder,” said Conwell. “At all times I have been hostile and will continue to be hostile to the people who committed the hijacking and the murder.”
Conwell, flanked by his wife, Olga, and brother, Ron, had high praise for the Reagan Administration’s handling of the hostage crisis, praising the President’s “courage, self-restraint and certainly an unending dedication to securing our freedom.”
But he also said he sensed a feeling that the Reagan Administration no longer favored him as a spokesman for the hostages.
“There were strong indications that someone in the Administration did not want me to give remarks upon arrival at (Andrews) Air Force Base,” he said. He also said that he told John L. Testrake, the TWA pilot, that he thought “someone in the Administration has a problem with me giving that talk.”
Conwell, who said he will return to his office in Oman soon, had some strong words for Hill, who had said that Conwell was naive and had been used by Amal. Conwell said that he found Hill’s remarks “slanderous.”
Conwell denied Thursday that he had received any special treatment by his captors, denying allegations that he had slept in private quarters, had better food than the others and had a car at his disposal.
“I slept with and lived with my fellow hostages when I was able to sleep,” he said. “The role I was cast into deprived me of a lot of sleep because I tried to get around and visit these men (the other hostages) and find out what their needs were.”
Stayed Within Policy
Conwell said that he was selected as spokesman for the hostages because no one else was nominated and that he always tried, in his remarks, to stay within what he knew of the Reagan Administration’s policy on hijackings and terrorism. He said that he never made a statement in which he knowingly went counter to American policy.
“I think the Administration did the proper thing under the circumstances,” he said. “I would support that policy with my life because it is the American policy.”
Conwell expressed sympathy for the seven Americans who have been abducted in Beirut during the past 16 months and who remain hostage there. He also said he wished he could have done more for the slain Stethem.
“I certainly wish I could have taken part in saving that young man’s life,” he said.
Conwell said that after the ordeal was over, someone had asked him if he was running for office.
“I said I didn’t want to run for office, I wanted to run back to my office.”