West German hostage Alfred Schmidt was released early Monday by his Lebanese kidnapers and flown home amid tight security linked to continuing negotiations for the release of his countryman, Rudolf Cordes.
Schmidt and Cordes were kidnaped in West Beirut in January by a radical, pro-Iranian group demanding that West Germany release an accused terrorist wanted by the United States. However, officials in Bonn on Monday denied making any deals for Schmidt's release.
Looking pale, thin and weary but saying his health was "OK," Schmidt, 47, was escorted to the Damascus airport by the West German ambassador and Syrian officials. West German television quoted him as saying he had been released in Beirut and then driven to Damascus by Syrian security officials.
Back in West Germany
"It's wonderful to be a free man once again," Schmidt was quoted as saying. He left Damascus on a West German air force plane and arrived early today at the Bonn-Cologne Airport, West German television reported.
Schmidt, a bio-medical engineer with the electronics firm Siemens, and Cordes, 53, a Hamburg businessman, were kidnaped by a group believed to be linked to the pro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God).
The kidnapings were in retaliation for the arrest in West Germany of Mohammed Ali Hamadi, a Lebanese wanted in the United States as a suspect in the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a Navy diver was killed. A brother of Hamadi, Abdel-Hadi, is a senior official in Hezbollah.
West Germany has refused a U.S. request to extradite Hamadi in a move praised by the kidnapers in their statements. He still faces trial in West Germany in connection with the hijacking.
Early Monday, in a statement delivered to an international news agency in West Beirut, the kidnapers said West Germany had promised to fulfill unspecified guarantees in return for Schmidt's release. The statement, signed by "The Freedom Strugglers," also thanked Syria "for its role in assuring a solution."
In Bonn, West German officials denied that any deal was made with the kidnapers. German officials say that Hamadi and another brother, Abbas, who was arrested in West Germany in January and charged with complicity in the kidnaping of Schmidt and Cordes, are still in jail.
The government officials and Schmidt's employer specifically denied paying any ransom for him, despite a claim by Rashid Mahroum, a West German businessman of Lebanese origin, that he arranged a ransom payment of $5 million.
Mahroum, who said he served as an intermediary in the negotiations, made his claim Monday night on West German television.
In Bonn, chief West German government spokesman Friedhelm Ost said in a television interview: "I think that the governments in Damascus and Tehran helped, and we thank them for their help."
Both Syria and Iran earlier claimed credit indirectly for arranging Schmidt's release.
However, when asked about Schmidt, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh told reporters: "I have nothing to say. Don't waste your time."
Analysts said Shareh's reticence might follow an agreement between the two mediators not to upstage each other.
West German officials have shuttled among Tehran, Beirut and Damascus since Schmidt and Cordes were seized in West Beirut.
Foreign Ministry sources in Bonn said work remains on negotiating freedom for Cordes. Officials at the West German Embassy in a Damascus suburb, where Schmidt spent Monday, said they had not allowed him to be interviewed at length for fear of endangering Cordes.
In Beirut, Syrian officers and militia officials could cast no light on exactly when or how Schmidt was released.
Witnesses said a blindfolded man was seen being driven past the Summerland Hotel on the southern edge of Beirut in the early morning, but it was not clear if he was Schmidt.
In Beirut, West German Ambassador Antonius Eitel told Visnews television agency that he was happy about Schmidt's release, "but the very fact that one of the kidnaped has been released makes our thoughts wander to the other ones who still wait, and among them Rudolf Cordes."
Schmidt's release in Beirut and arrival in Damascus were accompanied by none of the fanfare that greeted five other foreigners released since Syrian troops moved into Muslim West Beirut in February.
At least 23 foreigners--including eight Americans--are missing and believed kidnaped in Lebanon. The fate of many thousands of Lebanese kidnaped during their nation's 12-year civil war is unknown.