After months of increasing anxiety about the fate of U.S. hostages in Lebanon, Muslim extremists on Monday released one of their captives, an Indian national who was abducted along with three American professors last year.
Police and security officials said that Mithileshwar Singh was released by his abductors near the Kuwaiti Embassy in West Beirut, not far from the sprawling southern suburbs where he was believed to have been held since being kidnaped in January, 1987.
Singh was quickly picked up by Syrian security agents and was hurriedly taken to Damascus, where he will be formally released this morning, according to the officials.
Singh, a 60-year-old professor at Beirut University College, carries an Indian passport but also holds permanent resident status in the United States and has a “green card” that allows him to work legally there.
In Beirut, Singh’s wife Lalmani choked back tears as she told reporters: “This is a happy day for me, but I still did not see him. I want to see him.”
Although officials hailed the release, there also was an air of disappointment that an American citizen was not freed. There are believed to be nine Americans still in captivity in Lebanon.
“Obviously, we were hoping an American hostage would be released,” said one U.S. official in the region. “But still we are very glad that Mr. Singh is now free.”
The episode could also prove embarrassing to Syria, which played an active role in arranging the release at the behest of the United States.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh appeared at an impromptu news conference at the United Nations, where he is attending a General Assembly session, and declared to journalists: “I have good news for you and the American people.”
Simultaneously, Nasir Qaddur, the Syrian minister of state for foreign affairs, announced in Damascus that a hostage had been released and said he would be turned over to the U.S. ambassador in the Syrian capital--suggesting strongly that the Syrians believed until the last minute that the released hostage would be an American.
Indeed, sources at the United Nations said that Shareh had told several people privately that the hostage to be freed was Alann Steen of Boston, another professor at the college who was kidnaped at the same time. Widespread unconfirmed reports also indicated that Steen was the chosen hostage.
Hint of Embarrassment
There was immediate speculation in Beirut that the group holding the hostages intentionally hoped to embarrass the Syrians because of the intense pressure that has been applied by Damascus for a resolution of the hostage problem.
At the United Nations, State Department spokesman Charles Redman said: “We join with Mr. Singh’s relatives in rejoicing at his release, and we urge the unconditional release of all hostages.”
Redman said that Secretary of State George P. Shultz thanked Syrian officials for Damascus’ help in handling Singh’s transfer to freedom.
The U.S. government played no role in obtaining the release, Redman stressed, saying that he did not know what other countries might have done to influence the kidnapers.
Singh and three American professors at the college were abducted more than 20 months ago by gunmen disguised as police officers. The others are Steen, Jesse Turner of Boise, Ida., and Robert Polhill of New York.
Singh, who joined the Beirut University College faculty in 1983, was born in Varanasi, India, on Dec. 13, 1927. He taught for 16 years before moving to the United States in 1965 for graduate work at the University of Oregon.
He obtained a doctorate at Western Colorado, Grand Junction, Colo., an independent study institution, and also was an instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and Milton College, Wis.
The professors are being held by a group calling itself Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine. Jihad is Arabic for “holy war.”
“It’s a step in the right direction, and we hope they will all be released,” said Ferial Polhill, wife of Robert Polhill.
She was reached in Beirut at the apartment of Turner, after the wives of three captives gathered there Monday to await news of the expected release.
But relatives of other Americans held in Lebanon found little encouragement in Singh’s freedom.
“After each release, all the families said there was an air of expectancy, and we said that any movement was cause for optimism. But it never happened. I have to treat this in the same way. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” said Peggy Say, sister of Associated Press reporter Terry A. Anderson, who has been held since March 16, 1985, longer than any other U.S. hostage.
Say and a relative of Thomas Sutherland, who is being held by the same group that holds Anderson, said the kidnapers release prisoners for specific reasons and on their own timetables.
“This hostage release appears to be more for publicity purposes and purpose of capturing the news again,” said John Murray, brother-in-law of Sutherland, the acting dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut when he was abducted June 9, 1985. “It gives absolutely no indication that any of the other prisoners would be released immediately.”
On Monday night, the kidnapers released a photograph showing Singh with the three Americans. He was shaking hands, as if to say goodby.
The group agreed to the release after months of issuing demands that Israel free about 400 Arab prisoners from jail as a first step.
In addition, the group last month demanded that the Reagan Administration issue a statement indicating American support for Palestinian rights in the Israeli-occupied territories.
The group’s focus on Israel led some analysts to conclude that the kidnapers may have been Palestinians or supporters of the Palestinian struggle.
Most of the kidnapings of foreigners in Lebanon are believed to have been carried out by Shia Muslim extremist groups allied with Iran, such as Hezbollah (Party of God). Nearly all the groups have used the Islamic Jihad name in some form.
Gesture to U.S.
On Saturday, Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine issued a communique saying one hostage would be freed as a gesture to the U.S. Administration, also causing speculation that an American hostage would be set free.
“We will release one of the hostages. It is a difficult decision for us, but we will prove our good will and our seriousness in this matter,” the statement said.
The statement also said the group wanted to expose American “lies and pretensions of democracy and defense of human rights with regards to our oppressed people.”
After months of stalemate, a number of events in recent weeks had given hope of a breakthrough on the hostage question. The last American hostage to be released, David P. Jacobsen, was set free in November, 1986, as the Iran-Contra affair came to a close after several secret arms deals between the United States and Iran.
In July, Iran announced acceptance of a cease-fire in its eight-year war with Iraq, suggesting to Western analysts that more moderate elements were in control in Tehran. These moderates were said to be more amenable to improving relations with the West.
On Friday, Iran established full diplomatic relations with Britain, a move that had given rise to speculation that release was imminent for one or more British hostages, including Terry Waite, the special envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert A. K. Runcie.
Last month Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy shuttled between Damascus and Lebanon in an effort to arrange a smooth transition to a new president in Beirut.
The effort failed, but there have been a number of reports that Syria promised the United States that it would make a new effort on behalf of the hostages in return for Murphy’s intercession.
Times staff writers John M. Broder in Washington and Norman Kempster and Don Shannon at the United Nations also contributed to this story.