The Beirut kidnapers who had threatened to execute three Americans and an Indian colleague at midnight Monday postponed their death ultimatum "until further notice" just as the deadline expired.
The four teachers--three native-born Americans and an Indian who is a legal U.S. resident--are being held hostage by a group calling itself Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, which is demanding the release by Israel of 400 Arab prisoners.
A statement announcing the reprieve for the four hostages, seized from their Beirut University College campus Jan. 24, was delivered at midnight Monday to a Western news agency in Beirut, accompanied by a Polaroid photograph of one of the men, Robert Polhill, 53, of New York City, an assistant professor of business at the college.
Handwritten in Arabic, the captors' communique said that the terrorist group was responding to pleas from the hostages, their families, "nationalist Lebanese groups" and the government of India. The group added that it has found "certain positive points" in statements by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres concerning its demand for the release of prisoners by Israel.
"We want the fastest clarifications on this subject," the message from the kidnapers said, without elaborating.
Peres had indicated in a statement Sunday that Israel would consider discussing an exchange of Arab prisoners for an Israeli airman who is believed held in Lebanon by the Shia Muslim militia Amal. On Monday, however, Peres, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin all emphasized that the United States had yet to ask Israel to get involved in the issue of the American hostages.
"Nobody has requested something from Israel," Shamir told Israel radio.
The last-minute message of reprieve came after an emotional plea by the wives of the hostages, who, in addition to Polhill, include Alann Steen, 48, of Boston, a journalism instructor at Beirut University College; Jesse Turner, 39, a visiting professor of mathematics and computer science, and business professor Mithileshwar Singh, 60, a U.S. resident from India and chairman of the college's business school.
Before the wives made their appeal late Monday, a letter signed by Steen with notes from two of the other three was delivered to a news agency declaring that "we will be executed at midnight."
'If You Do Love Us . . . '
"Until then, if you do love us and your hearts beat for us, put pressure on Israel to show good will," said Steen's letter, addressed to his wife. "Let Israel promise the (kidnapers') organization plainly and officially that 400 Palestinian Mujaheds (holy warriors) will be free. Otherwise we won't be alive after midnight."
Errors in grammar and spelling indicated that the letter may have been drafted for Steen and the other three by their captors.
After the delivery of the Steen letter--which was accompanied by a Polaroid picture of the journalism teacher, smiling broadly and clean-shaven, in contrast to a videotape released Sunday that showed him with a short beard--the wives called a hasty news conference at Beirut University College, a small school in West Beirut.
'We Shall Do Our Utmost'
"Please, please spare the lives of our husbands," appealed Firyal Polhill, who is Lebanese. "Believe that we shall do our utmost to secure their demands. In the name of the Almighty, in the name of humanity, please do not execute them."
Singh's wife, Lalmani, asked Steen's wife, Virginia Rose, to read her plea on behalf of her husband. "He is sick and old, and he should be released," her statement said.
Badr Khazen Turner, who is Lebanese and who is six months pregnant, assured her husband that "your baby will be fine, especially when you join us again. . . . We always pray for you all. We are doing our best to secure your release."
Almost all the statements from the hostages and their wives focused on the question of pressuring Israel to release 400 captive Arabs. Israel holds 3,000 Palestinians convicted of terrorist acts or security-related offenses, and the Israeli-controlled South Lebanon Army militia, deployed north of the Israeli-Lebanese border, holds between 200 and 400, most of them Shia Muslims captured since Israel withdrew from Lebanon after its 1982 invasion of that country.
In the past three years, Israel has several times swapped Arab prisoners for Israeli captives in Lebanon.
The final-hours letter that was signed by Steen and addressed to his wife said, "If Israel is not ready to reconsider its attitude, the American people must put pressure on our government to convince it to reconsider its relationship with Israel . . . at least after our death."
It also warned against any American military action against Lebanon "so that the lives of American citizens don't become jeopardized."
The letter ended with personal sentiments tinged with politics: "Listen, love, I don't want to see you cry anymore. Tell them to release the 400. I love you, Virginia."
U.S. Warships in Haifa
Seven U.S. warships were docked at the Israeli port of Haifa on Monday night. About 9,000 American seamen from the ships have been granted shore leave but were reportedly ordered to stay in close contact with their ships.
U.S. officials have denied discussing contingencies regarding the hostage situation with the Israeli government. Israel radio, however, reported that State Department officials and Israeli officials in Washington did discuss the issue. According to the radio report, the State Department expressed concern that Israel might be tempted to make a deal to exchange Palestinian prisoners for the Israeli airman. "The Americans said they feared this might damage U.S. credibility at a time that it is trying to restore public confidence in its policy not to negotiate with terrorists," the broadcast said.
Times staff writer Dan Fisher contributed to this story from Jerusalem.