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U.S. Disputes Syria on Efforts to Free 5 Hostages

Times Staff Writer

The White House reacted sharply Monday to Syrian President Hafez Assad’s suggestion that his efforts to free five American hostages in Lebanon may have been torpedoed by the U.S. air raid on Libya and what he called “verbal bombs” from President Reagan.

Presidential spokesman Larry Speakes cast doubt on the value of the Syrian efforts, noting that there have been “no tangible results to date” in achieving the release of the hostages. He also called on Syria to oust known terrorist Abu Nidal.

While Speakes conceded that the Administration has no direct evidence that Assad was harboring Abu Nidal, believed to be the mastermind of the attacks on the Rome and Vienna airports last December, he said that Abu Nidal has “a substantial presence” in Syria in terms of an organization and has traveled in and out of the country.

Clearly annoyed by Assad’s remarks in a weekend interview with the Washington Post, Speakes appeared to reverse the White House’s generally favorable assessment last week of the Damascus regime’s role in the Middle East.

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Assad said the Administration’s attack on Tripoli had brought to a standstill U.S-Arab cooperation on a wide range of issues and had made it virtually impossible for him to continue “serious efforts” to free the hostages.

“No one can do anything when the U.S. Administration is carrying the hammer of war,” he said.

A White House official speaking on the condition that he not be identified called Assad’s comments “low blows against us” and questioned whether Assad had ever really tried to use his influence with the Islamic extremists believed to be holding the hostages.

‘Haven’t Seen Much Fruit’

“It’s an open question whether the hostages could have been freed by now if the Syrians had used the influence we believe they have,” he said. “We really haven’t seen much fruit of any sort of endeavor.”

Just last week, Speakes deflected questions about mounting evidence gathered by European governments and Israel linking Syria to recent terrorist incidents. Instead he gave an upbeat description of that government’s efforts on behalf of the hostages and a plea to understand its occasional need to placate more radical elements in the Middle East.

On Monday, Speakes did an about-face. With no prompting from reporters, he eagerly countered what he called “this blast” from Assad.

“Syria remains on our terrorist list,” he said, urging Assad to “abide by the norms of international behavior” and exert the necessary pressure to free the hostages.

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When asked about the credibility of Assad’s complaints that the U.S. bombing raid on Libya last month had crippled his efforts, Speakes replied that the Syrian president has “a lot of influence in the region, simply from his presence. . . . And whether this small factional group that may be holding our hostages is for the moment not talking to him, that’s for him to determine.”

A White House official conceded that the Administration’s sudden change of tone regarding Assad’s role may send “mixed signals.” However, he added, the sharper rhetoric reflected the Administration’s frustration with Assad’s public comments and the lack of progress on the hostage front.


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