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Extremists Threaten to Kill Marine : Free Cleric or U.S. Captive Will Hang, Muslims Tell Israel

Times Staff Writer

An extremist Shiite Muslim group claiming to hold captive U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins threatened to hang Higgins today if Israel does not release a Lebanese Shiite clergyman and two associates abducted last week by Israeli commandos.

The typewritten threat was handed Sunday to news agencies in Beirut where Hezbollah (Party of God), a pro-Iranian organization, is based. The abducted cleric, Abdel Kareem Obeid, has been described as a leader of the Hezbollah militia organization in southern Lebanon. The threat to take Higgins’ life was signed by the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, which is the name of a Hezbollah faction.

Release Demanded

“We will carry out the death sentence and hang the spy Higgins at 3 p.m. Monday (5 a.m. PDT) if Sheik Abdel Kareem Obeid and his two brothers are not released before that time,” the message said.

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“This would be our first response to the stupid Israeli aggression and to America’s support (of it),” the threat concluded.

The ultimatum came soon after Iran’s Prime Minister Hussein Moussavi described Obeid’s capture as a “terrorist abduction.” He added that it would have a “negative effect on the fate of hostages in Lebanon.” Hezbollah is supported by Iran.

There was no immediate way of knowing if the Arab-language threat was authentic, although its tone and the style of its printing matched earlier communications from the group.

On Dec. 12, 1988, the organization said that Higgins had “made full confessions about his espionage activities” and that he had been “sentenced” to death. No mention was made in that communication of a deadline for carrying out any “execution.”

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Accused of Spying

Higgins, 44, of Danville, Ky., was on temporary duty as head of the U.N. Truce Supervisory Organization, monitoring the Lebanese-Israeli border, when he was taken hostage Feb. 17, 1988. His captors at that time accused him of being a spy for the CIA, and there have been widespread reports that he was tortured.

U.S. officials Sunday appeared to be taking the threat seriously. In Washington, the Bush Administration issued a statement saying: “We hold the kidnapers of American hostages fully responsible for their safety. We expect those who have influence with the hostage holders to do everything possible to ensure that no harm comes to those hostages or other Americans.”

In Paris, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler reacted angrily to the threat to hang Higgins. She said that Secretary of State James A. Baker III discussed the Higgins case Sunday with U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar.

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“It is outrageous and uncivilized that he should have been taken hostage in the first place,” Tutwiler said. “It is equally outrageous and uncivilized to threaten to kill him.

“He is not only an American citizen but also a U.N. official carrying out a peacekeeping mission,” she said. “Threatening his life is an affront to the entire civilized international community.”

Relative Doubts Threat

A relative of the family said in Washington late Sunday: “I don’t think they’ll do it. It’s a natural reaction to (the Israeli) action. If the threat is from the . . . group that holds him, the good news is that he’s still alive. . . .”

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At the same time, however, the relative added: “The truth is, he’s in a very dangerous situation. So far, they haven’t carried through on any of their threats, but one of these days, they just might.”

Israel, which had announced plans to trade Obeid for its own soldiers missing in Lebanon, withheld immediate response to the hanging threat.

Obeid, along with two men reported to be relatives of his, were seized early Friday from the southern Lebanese village of Jibchit. Armed Israeli commandos flew them by helicopter to Israel for questioning, officials here said.

Linked to Attacks

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Military officials charged that Obeid, 36, was behind several attacks on Israeli troops who patrol a nine-mile-wide buffer zone inside neighboring Lebanon. The officials linked him to the 1986 capture of at least two Israeli soldiers in Lebanon, as well as Higgins’ abduction.

Besides bargaining for their own captive soldiers, the release of Higgins might be part of a larger deal, the Israeli officials said.

The dangerous game of brinksmanship between Israel and Hezbollah began after secret talks in London last month between Israel and Iran over the release of Israeli soldiers broke down, Israeli newspapers reported. Israeli leaders were frustrated over the lack of progress and the decision to snatch Obeid was made, although with some trepidation, newspapers said.

Could Become Martyr

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Yediot Aharonot, the country’s largest circulation daily newspaper, cautioned that the response from Muslim militants could simply be more violence. “Israel must be careful that the kidnaping does not turn Obeid into a living saint. Martyrs can act as boomerangs,” the paper said.

In the midst of euphoria over the successful raid, the Israeli government was taken aback by the lukewarm response of foreign governments, especially that of the United States. President Bush indirectly criticized Obeid’s abduction by saying that it would not help Middle East peace.

“There were lots of hard feelings here after Bush’s statement,” a Foreign Ministry source said.

On Sunday, Israeli officials insisted that Western governments were secretly pleased with the audacious act. “I believe that this is one of those events politicians condemn publicly and admire privately,” said Ehud Olmert, a minister in charge of Arab affairs.

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Information Request

To offset Washington’s veiled criticism, Israeli officials leaked word that the U.S. government had requested a sharing of information to be gleaned from the interrogation of Obeid. “This (leak) was no doubt triggered by the Bush Administration response,” said the Foreign Ministry source. “On the one hand, the U.S. is interested, on the other, it criticizes.”

Israeli sources say that Israel did not inform Washington of its move to take Obeid, even though the freeing of Higgins was soon advanced as a possible by-product.

Israel has long favored direct action against terrorist groups, although it had usually struck at them with air or ground attacks in Lebanon and elsewhere.

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The rare abduction is hailed by the government as an effective deterrent. “This is the purest form of justice that a killer like him (Obeid) and a terrorist like him would be brought to justice. I am sure that he and others will learn from this,” said Minister Olmert, who belongs to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s Likud Party.

Cuts Both Ways

Added Zeev Schiff, military analyst for the Haaretz newspaper: “The actions prove that the way Hezbollah and other extremist organizations operate is not one-sided, and it is possible to do to others what they do themselves. They do not have a copyright on the idea of kidnaping, and their leaders can pay a heavy price for their actions.”

The Organization of the Oppressed on Earth claimed to have abducted Higgins. The group also took responsibility for kidnaping a dozen Jewish residents of Beirut in 1984 and later killing eight of them. Members also participated in a hijacking of a Lebanese Middle East Airlines jet in 1985, a 1985 street bombing in Madrid that left one person dead and, some reports said, in the violent 1985 hijacking of an TWA jetliner that took one American life.

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Higgins is one of nine Americans held captive in Lebanon by various Muslim extremists. In all, at least 15 foreign hostages are in the hands of armed groups.

Working With U.N.

At the time of his disappearance, Higgins was heading a U.N. truce observation team in southern Lebanon. He had left a meeting with a Lebanese Shiite militia known as Amal when he was intercepted near the coastal city of Tyre. Higgins was unarmed and without a protective escort at the time.

Higgins’ wife is a Marine Corps major who works in the Pentagon. Before going to Lebanon, Higgins was an assistant to then-Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger.

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Since snatching Obeid, Israel has ordered its client South Lebanon Army to be ready for guerrilla attacks against this country’s northern frontier. Times staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this story from Washington.


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