U.S. Hopes for Release of Hostage Despite Delay : Mideast: Iran is said to be involved 'on an hour-by-hour basis' in trying to end the standoff with Lebanese kidnapers.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A promise of freedom for an American hostage remained frozen Friday, although Syrian and U.S. officials involved in the drama expressed cautious optimism that heightened involvement by Iran in the crisis means that a release is still on track within the next few days.

A ranking Bush Administration official said Tehran is involved "on an hour-by-hour basis" in an attempt to end the standoff over the U.S. refusal to dispatch Assistant Secretary of State John Kelly to Syria. The Lebanese kidnapers had demanded that he be sent.

There was no immediate new word from the Islamic extremists who had said Wednesday that they would release an American hostage within 48 hours as a gesture of goodwill. The hostage presumably would be one of the three American educators that the group said it abducted from the campus of a Beirut university 39 months ago.

The captives are Jesse Turner, 42, of Boise, Ida.; Robert Polhill, 55, of New York, and Alann Steen, a former member of the faculty at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., who will turn 51 Sunday.

An editorial in the English-language Tehran Times edition of this morning calls for the immediate release of all hostages without preconditions. It also says the presence in Damascus of the American ambassador to Syria, Edward P. Djerejian, is "enough to facilitate the release of the hostages." Djerejian returned there Thursday from a conference in West Germany.

In the most hopeful sign, the editorial also suggests that a second hostage held by another group will be released as soon as next week. The newspaper reflects the thinking of Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is widely believed to be the main force behind the new attempt to negotiate an end to the longstanding hostage crisis.

The Administration official, who saw a report about the editorial, said that although much could go wrong with current and future efforts, he thinks the momentum for release of the hostages has become irreversible.

In Damascus, Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh also said Friday that Syria "has been exerting a great deal of influence" to free not just one American but all the hostages. In private discussions, he also confirmed Iran's greater involvement, according to State Department officials.

Despite the developments, U.S. officials maintained a low-key position. White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Friday: "Syria still believes there's a possibility of release. We'll just wait and see if it's real.

"Our attitude is to be prepared, to take all precautions and the preparation necessary to facilitate it if it does happen but not to get overly optimistic," Fitzwater said. He added that President Bush has no plans to change his scheduled weekend fishing trip in Florida.

But even Shiite Muslim extremists in Lebanon conceded that movement is still under way, despite the delay announced Thursday by Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, which says it is holding Turner, Polhill and Steen. The group had demanded that the United States send Kelly, head of the State Department's Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, to Damascus to work out unspecified details.

"We confirm that lots of efforts have been exerted to free the Western hostages. Those talks are now being translated into action," Sheik Sobhi al Tofeili, a leading Hezbollah cleric, said in an interview with United Press International in Beirut.

In another interview, Hussein Moussawi, leader of Lebanon's Islamic Amal group, said, "The delay is certain, the complications are certain, but the release is also certain.

"Kelly's failure to respond is not going to cancel the release," Moussawi said. But he added that the U.S. position is "arrogant" and reflects "cowboy mentality." He said, "If someone decides to return a hostage, the other side is supposed to take the hostage."

Islamic Amal is another pro-Iranian Shiite faction under the Hezbollah, or Party of God, umbrella.

The Bush Administration blasted the purported cause of the delay as a "smoke screen." Reflecting the frustration in Washington, Fitzwater said the captors may be toying with the United States.

"They do every time," he charged. "The pattern is very much the same. They announce a release, put out pictures or videotapes or letters and then there's some demand or reason why it can't happen."

Meanwhile, Kelly flew to Washington on Friday from West Germany, where he chaired a conference of American envoys to the Middle East. Upon his return, he said that the United States will "never bow to the demands of hostage holders."

Despite rumors in the Middle East of a possible compromise by which Kelly would fly to Syria, but only after a hostage release, U.S. officials said the envoy has no travel plans.

One official said that no deals--formal or informal--were under discussion Friday, but he did not rule out a last-minute "gesture."

"There's nothing cooking at the moment, no quid pro quo . But that's not to say that things can't develop, depending on what happens," he commented. "Those things have a way of happening at the last minute."

In the background of the scramble in Damascus to clear away the last-minute hitch, the Administration is scrambling in Washington to clarify its position on hostage negotiations. Just last month, Fitzwater said the United States was prepared "to talk to anyone, any time, any place" about the hostages.

The U.S. refusal to send Kelly has particularly frustrated the hostages' relatives, who feel the Administration is reversing its policy--and possibly losing an opportunity to win freedom for at least one of the eight Americans still believed held in Lebanon.

State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said Friday: "United States policy is clear. We will discuss the unconditional release of our hostages with any authoritative representative of Iran or others with influence over hostage-holders. But we are not going to accede to demands of terrorists who continue to hold Americans hostage."

Williams reported from Damascus, and Wright reported from Washington. Times staff writer James Gerstenzang, traveling with President Bush in Alabama, also contributed to this report.

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