Kidnapers Back Hostage Efforts by U.N. Chief
Two Shiite Muslim extremist groups Thursday issued photographs of two hostages said to be held in Lebanon and pledged support for U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar’s delicate mediation to win freedom for nearly 400 American, European, Israeli and Lebanese captives.
The statements by the two groups fueled speculation that more of the 10 Western hostages soon will be freed. Although Perez de Cuellar warned against expecting an immediate release, a Lebanese Cabinet minister in Beirut said that as many as three hostages, including Anglican Church envoy Terry Waite, could be released within a week.
Early today, a deported Palestinian and the body of a missing Israeli soldier were flown home in a deal that improved the chances of freeing Western hostages in Lebanon. The trade was the second public step in an apparent multi-stage deal that, if successful, would lead to the hostages’ freedom.
An unmarked Israeli Boeing 707 flew from Vienna to an air force base next to Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. It brought the corpse of Sgt. Samir Assad, missing in Lebanon since 1983, and Ali abu Hilal, deported from his West Bank home in 1986 because of his activities in a Syrian-backed guerrilla movement.
The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), which held Assad’s body, handed over the remains on the condition that Israel allow Hilal to return.
In a statement delivered anonymously to a Western news agency in Beirut, one Shiite Muslim group, the Revolutionary Justice Organization, suggested that more Western hostages will be freed in response to Israel’s release of 51 Lebanese prisoners Wednesday. Another estimated 325 Arab prisoners make up the vast majority of the captives.
“The first stage has been completed with the release of the first group,” the group’s communique said. “We will meet our obligations and commitments as long as compliance has taken place by the other sides. We hope the happy ending . . . will be reached soon.”
The statement was accompanied by a picture of British hostage Jack Mann, who, at 77, is the oldest Western hostage. It was the first photo of Mann, a former pilot who lived in Beirut more than 20 years, to be released publicly since his abduction in 1989.
The Revolutionary Justice Organization also claims to hold American Joseph J. Cicippio, who marked the beginning of his fifth year in captivity on Thursday and who turns 61 today.
A second Shiite group, Islamic Jihad, issued a separate communique a few hours later. “We are fully ready to offer the necessary support for (Perez de Cuellar) to reach the requested comprehensive solution,” it said. It included a dated photograph of Associated Press bureau chief Terry A. Anderson, whose abduction in 1985 makes him the longest-held Western hostage.
Although the communiques appeared to raise prospects for another hostage release, the Islamic Jihad statement alluded to demands for the freedom of three Lebanese Shiites imprisoned in Germany and Switzerland. Their release is considered unlikely as part of the U.N. mediation.
The involvement of the DFLP, a small but powerful faction under the Palestine Liberation Organization umbrella, in this morning’s exchange reflects the complexity of the U.N. mediation and the diverse demands that must be addressed before the nine-year hostage drama ends.
A central element of the negotiations involves Israel’s insistence on determining the fate of seven Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon since 1982. Some are believed to have been held by groups unrelated to the captors of Western hostages. To satisfy Israel’s demand to retrieve the soldiers or their remains, the outside groups must be brought into the talks and their demands must be met.
The behind-the-scenes mediation in Austria involved Hilal, a DFLP politburo member, and the body of Samir Assad, an Israeli Druze soldier captured near the port city of Sidon during Israel’s three-year occupation of Lebanon. The DFLP claimed Assad was killed in 1984 in an Israeli air strike, a claim that Israel has disputed.
Hilal and the Israeli soldier’s body were flown to Austria secretly a few days ago in anticipation of a swap, U.S. officials said.
The exchange was the second breakthrough in the delicate U.N. effort. The first occurred Wednesday when Israel received “irrefutable proof” about the death of another soldier, breaking a monthlong impasse.
After another round of high-level talks in Tehran, Perez de Cuellar was cautiously optimistic.
“I have already got good results, which I hope will be the beginning,” he said, noting that Iran has pledged full cooperation in ending the hostage crisis. Still, Perez de Cuellar, who is scheduled to leave Iran for Saudi Arabia today, cautioned against expecting that Wednesday’s breakthrough will lead to an immediate hostage release.
In Washington, President Bush was guarded in his reaction, saying he was “very pleased” by Israel’s release of the 51 Lebanese prisoners.