Syrian Aide Dampens Hopes for Hostages

Times Staff Writer

Beirut press reports have raised hopes once again that release may be near for at least some of the American or other Western hostages being held in Lebanon, but Syria’s foreign minister said Sunday he is “not very optimistic” that any of the captives will soon be free.

At least 18 Westerners, including five Americans, are being held by an array of extremist groups.

Speaking from Damascus, Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh told CBS News “Face the Nation” when asked for his reaction to the press reports that he has no “tangible grounds” for optimism.


“I hope such reports are true,” he said. “The Syrian government is doing its best to secure the release of the American and French hostages in Lebanon.”

Syria has been stung by recent charges that it supports terrorism. Both Iran and Libya, close allies of the Assad regime, are believed to have ties to some of the varied groups that have claimed responsibility for the abductions.

‘Some Movement’ Expected

The Syrian officials have said, according to press reports, that they expect “some movement” during the next 10 days, although diplomats pointed out that similar optimism in the past has proved unfounded.

Most of the Lebanese press reports, which could not be independently verified, spoke of release arrangements nearing completion for some of the nine French hostages being held in Lebanon.

Only one report, in the pro-Syrian magazine Al Shiraa on Saturday, mentioned the five Americans who are still missing. It said three Frenchmen and three Americans “will be freed shortly.”

The reports concerning the French hostages follow high-level negotiations between France and Iran that culminated last week in a meeting in Paris between French Premier Jacques Chirac and Iranian Deputy Prime Minister Alireza Moayeri.

Details of the discussions were not released, but there have been persistent reports that at least some of the Frenchmen who were seized in Beirut were taken by pro-Iranian fundamentalists in an effort to pressure France to abandon its support for Iraq in the five-year-old Iran-Iraq War.

After the negotiations in Paris, letters and photographs from the members of the kidnaped television crew, who work for France’s Antenne 2 channel, were received in France indicating that they are well, according to Chirac’s office. A group calling itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization has said it is holding the four.

Responsibility for the kidnaping of four of the remaining French hostages, as well as all of the Americans still in captivity, has been claimed by Islamic Holy War, which is believed to be a rubric adopted by several fundamentalist groups.

Diplomats have long speculated that the Iranian-backed Party of God, or Hezbollah, is holding four French hostages, while a group of dissident Iraqi Shia Muslims known as Al Dawaa (The Call) is believed to be holding the Americans in hopes of exchanging them for 17 people in Kuwaiti jails.

American ‘Killed’

Similarly, the Islamic Holy War group asserted that it killed William Buckley, a former political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut who was kidnaped in March, 1984. The group distributed photos purporting to show Buckley dead, but U.S. officials said they have received no evidence to support the claim.

The four other American being held are Terry A. Anderson, the chief Middle East correspondent of the Associated Press; Father Lawrence M. Jenco, a Roman Catholic priest; David P. Jacobsen, the director of the American University Hospital, and Thomas Sutherland, the university’s dean of agriculture.

A sixth American, Peter Kilburn, 61, a librarian at the university kidnaped Dec. 3, 1984, was shot to death in April in apparent retaliation for the April 15 American bombing raid on Libya.