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Wife of British Hostage Is Losing Hope : Mideast: Jack Mann’s rumored release collapses as kidnapers in Lebanon declare a ‘freeze.’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“I just feel that it’s finished,” a teary, crestfallen Sunny Mann said Friday in Beirut, underlining the apparent collapse of efforts to free more Western hostages, a tentative deal that broke down in coarse bargaining for lives.

Mann’s husband Jack, a 77-year-old onetime fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain, had been the name floated for the last 10 days as the next hostage to be released.

Held captive for more than two years since he was snatched off a street in the Lebanese capital, Mann was expected to be freed by a group of militant Lebanese kidnapers calling themselves the Revolutionary Justice Organization. The action was to be in return for the Sept. 11 release of 51 Arab prisoners by Israel.

But late Thursday, the kidnapers broke the bubble of hope with a message delivered to a news agency in Beirut.

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“The Revolutionary Justice Organization is sorry to freeze the hope of an imminent release . . . until the picture becomes clearer about the Israeli position and the United Nations movement,” the message said.

The kidnapers insisted that the Israelis had agreed, in secret negotiations under U.N. auspices, to release 80 Arab prisoners, but instead turned over the 51 plus the remains of nine Muslim guerrillas. “It appears the issue is likely to be complicated anew unless 20 more detainees are released according to the agreement,” their message said.

The breakdown of the deal led Friday to finger-pointing by all sides.

Mann’s wife, who did not know whether her husband was alive or dead until his photo was released last week, blamed the Israelis. “It’s absolutely essential that they cooperate instead of just making new barriers the whole time,” she told reporters.

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“I’m just back to where I was two years ago,” she said. “I don’t think there will be a release soon. I’ve lost all my optimism. I just feel that it’s finished.”

It was not clear, however, whether Mann’s wife, 73, a longtime Beirut resident, knew the terms of the negotiations. Reuters news agency quoted a Western diplomat in Beirut as saying of the breakdown: “I’m shattered. Our information was (that) a British hostage would be freed in return for the release of 60. As far as I know, the kidnapers are to blame.”

As the number of Western hostages dwindled, diplomats expected the stakes to rise as the hostage-holders attempt to extract maximum value for releasing their captives--both in terms of reciprocal releases and guarantees for their personal safety.

U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar and his representatives have been in direct contact with officials in Israel, Iran, Syria and Lebanon over the last few months, trying to end the hostage crisis that has mired attempts to improve relations between Muslim powers and the West. And, basically, it has been a bazaar, a trade in captives, some priced higher than others.

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In early August, Briton John McCarthy and American Edward A. Tracy were released. McCarthy carried a letter to Perez de Cuellar calling for increased U.N. efforts to free captives held by both sides.

The Lebanese kidnapers, identified by Western intelligence agencies as Shiite Muslims strongly influenced by Iranian hard-liners, have been under pressure to give up their remaining Western hostages. But they have demanded, in return, freedom for some of Israel’s Arab prisoners and other Arabs jailed in Europe for terrorism.

Among the Arab captives, the highest value is placed on Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, abducted from his south Lebanon village in July, 1989, by Israeli commandos. Israeli authorities said he was a key leader of the militant Hezbollah movement.

“Everyone understands that Sheik Obeid is the strongest card in our hands,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens said this week, “and he is a bargaining chip not only for Israel but for all Western countries that have hostages there (in Lebanon). Therefore, we have to play this card right.”

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