War Over, Allies Turn Attention to Freeing Hostages in Lebanon

From Reuters

Fresh from victory in the war against Iraq, allied nations are turning their attention to winning the release of Americans and other Westerners held hostage by pro-Iranian militants in Lebanon.

But Muslim fundamentalists say any releases are unlikely in the near future because they would be misinterpreted as a reward to the West for fighting Iraq and sending troops to the region.

They said that even the new alliances forged between the West and some Arab states during the Gulf crisis are so far too weak to break the impasse over the six Americans and other Western hostages, some of whom have been held since 1985.

"Nothing is moving on the hostages," said a senior Lebanese pro-Iranian leader, who declined to be identified. "When you are in a storm, such as that raging in Iraq, a few people is a minor issue."

Other Shiite Muslim leaders in Beirut agreed that there are no signs of an imminent breakthrough for the kidnaped Westerners.

Western diplomats said their governments are stepping up pressure to solve the hostage problem. They argue that the end of the Gulf War has cleared the way for their immediate release.

"I strongly reject that the war or its aftermath can be used as a justification for the continued detention of these men," one diplomat said. "They should have been freed unconditionally long ago."

American journalist Terry Anderson, 43, is the longest held of the Western hostages. Anderson starts his seventh year in captivity Saturday.

In addition to the six Americans, the hostages include two Britons, two West Germans and an Italian. Most are believed to be held by members of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God) in Beirut's sprawling southern suburbs. Hezbollah denies any role in the kidnapings.

"I hear of no progress on the hostages, but there is always hope. I believe the problem remains an internal issue in Iran which must be resolved," one Western diplomatic source said.

"If Iran wants them released, they will come out," he said. He added that Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani wanted this to happen but was apparently blocked by hard-liners.

Other diplomatic sources said the Persian Gulf crisis has opened new avenues that they hope will help break the deadlock soon.

They said that Secretary of State James A. Baker III will almost certainly make a fresh appeal to Syria's President Hafez Assad for aid in securing their release when they meet in Damascus in a few days.

Syria, the main Arab ally of Iran and foreign power broker in Lebanon, where it has 40,000 troops, has repeatedly pledged to do everything in its power to win the release of all foreign hostages.

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