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Latest Kidnaping Thwarts Syria’s Efforts in Lebanon

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking to mend its ties with the West, Syria has been deeply embarrassed by the kidnaping of a French relief worker in Lebanon, and officials here Friday said the new attack is a signal that anti-Western radicals in Lebanon remain stronger than previously believed.

The abduction of 26-year-old Jerome Leyraud in Beirut on Thursday not only dampened hopes for immediate release of a second Western hostage, but called into question Syria’s ability to guarantee the peace in neighboring Lebanon and the power of Iran’s moderate government to control radical Shiite Muslim militants believed to hold most of the Western captives.

A Syrian government official said Friday there are indications that both the Leyraud kidnaping and the assassination in Paris of former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar earlier in the week are the work of Shiite radicals angered at their recent loss of influence in Lebanon and eager to check the strides of Syria and Iran toward the West.

“For some time, all of us believed that the extremist line . . . was very much weakened. But after this new development (the release of British hostage John McCarthy on Thursday), they united to show the Iranian government that they are not that weak, and they are in a position to strike back,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

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For its part, Syria has been placed in the difficult position of acknowledging it is unable to guarantee there will be no further kidnapings in Lebanon at a time when a strong new political and military cooperation agreement has allowed this country to exert unprecedented influence over its weak, war-torn neighbor.

Syria has 40,000 troops stationed in Lebanon under a 1976 peacekeeping mandate from the Arab League, and the agreement signed earlier this year permits a near-permanent Syrian military presence. Israel has described the contract as a virtual Syrian takeover of Lebanon.

“This is very embarrassing for Syria, to kidnap somebody from inside Lebanon right now,” the official admitted. “After the agreement (that included disarming most of Lebanon’s militias) . . . after everything that has happened, all of a sudden another hostage is taken?”

Syrian officials and diplomats in Damascus predicted that the threats by a group calling itself the Organization for the Defense of the Prisoners’ Rights to kill Leyraud if another Western hostage is unconditionally released will jeopardize efforts to free an American or other Western captive, despite pronouncements by mainstream Shiite leaders and Syrian and Iranian government officials that the time for hostage holding has passed.

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“I think it will be impossible,” one Syrian official said Friday of the possibility of a second hostage release as long as Leyraud is in captivity. “They said if you release the other hostage, this man will be executed.” He shrugged with an air of finality.

A senior Western diplomat in Damascus said Syria’s prestige has taken a blow just at the time it is being relied on to help deliver Arab radicals to the peace table.

“One of the questions now is whether all along the Syrians have had only a veto, which we have suspected, or if they are more active in pushing the Iranians,” the envoy said. “Hezbollah (an umbrella organization embracing most of the groups believed to be holding Western hostages in Lebanon) isn’t doing what I would have thought the Syrians would have wanted them to do, and it certainly isn’t in the Syrians’ interest to not have the Lebanese army appear to be in control of the south (of Lebanon).”

A recent factional split within Hezbollah, or Party of God, is believed by some officials here to be the source of the recent events that culminated this week in both McCarthy’s release and Leyraud’s kidnaping.

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A party congress in late May led to the abrupt ousting of militant Hezbollah leader Sobhi Tufaili, an ally of Iranian radical leader Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, who is one of Iran’s strongest critics of President Hashemi Rafsanjani’s moves toward moderation and greater alliance with the West and Arab countries of the Persian Gulf.

Tufaili was replaced by another Shiite leader considered much closer to Syria, Sheik Abbas Moussawi, and a second pro-Syrian leader was chosen as deputy secretary general. With Syria’s attempts to court the West following the removal of its former patron, the Soviet Union, as an actor in the Middle East, the talk about an imminent Western hostage release began almost immediately after Moussawi’s election.

Some officials in Damascus believe the Leyraud kidnaping and the assassination of Bakhtiar and his chief of staff were attempts by the pro-Mohtashemi faction to reassert its influence in the region and foil Iran’s moves toward the West, especially Britain.

Mohtashemi himself made a recent visit to Tunis to meet with Palestine Liberation Organization leaders in an apparent attempt to consolidate radical Arab support in the region, according to one Syrian official.

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“These people, of course, are against the developments taking place in the area. They are against the American (peace) initiative, maybe they want to solidify the PLO position against pressures, and at the same time figure they can prop each other up,” the official said.

French police are seeking three Iranians who visited Bakhtiar on Wednesday in connection with the fatal stabbing, and Iranian exile leaders have blamed an Iranian hit squad for the killing.

But sources here said it is equally probable that the assassination was the work of a militant faction seeking to embarrass the Iranian government, which only last year had helped engineer the release of three French hostages and won, as an apparent sign of confidence, the release by French authorities of a Lebanese national and convicted leader of a pro-Iranian terror squad, Anis Naccache. He had been serving a prison term for a 1980 assassination attempt against Bakhtiar in France in which a police officer was killed.

“What does it mean to kill Bakhtiar now? Only an embarrassment to the Iranian regime,” said one official here.

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