Signaling a possible breakthrough in the long-running hostage negotiations, the United Nations said Sunday it expects the release within 24 hours of another American hostage in Lebanon.
Later, the Associated Press reported from Beirut that a Shiite Muslim kidnaping faction said it would release an American hostage--either Jesse J. Turner or Alann Steen--within 24 hours. The announcement by the Organization of Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine came in a 52-word statement in Arabic delivered to a Beirut newspaper and to a Western news agency, Associated Press reported.
The statement was authenticated by a color photograph of Turner, showing him wearing navy blue trousers and a white cotton sweatshirt, Associated Press said.
There was no other indication of who the freed hostage would be or where he would be released. Lebanese captors still hold five Americans among nine Western hostages, and photographs and communications have been forthcoming in recent days from organizations holding several of the captives.
The brief U.N. announcement, released at 2 p.m. (5 a.m. PDT) from the United Nations' Information Center in Beirut, also said that Israel is expected to release several Arab detainees in south Lebanon as a result of intense U.N. negotiating efforts over the last several days.
The real deadlock appeared to have been broken on Saturday, when Israeli authorities announced they had received reliable information that one of their five missing servicemen in Lebanon is in fact dead.
Israel has tied any release of the 300 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners it holds in and around the security zone it controls in south Lebanon to firm information on the fate of Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon over the past decade.
Israel released 51 Arab prisoners and the bodies of nine guerrillas last month after receiving confirmation that one of the missing soldiers, Rahamim Alshiekh, an infantryman captured in October, 1986, while on patrol in southern Lebanon, is dead.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said over the weekend that it had received reliable information that serviceman Yossi Fink, also captured in 1986, is also dead. The two men are believed to have died of combat wounds shortly after their capture, Israeli officials said.
"We weren't ready to move without this information reaching us," Israel's chief hostage coordinator, Uri Lubrani, told Army Radio on Sunday. Another Israeli official connected to the hostage talks, Ori Slonim, predicted there would be "some gestures made within the framework of the initiative."
The U.N. communique was the first from that agency since it began intensive efforts in August to arrange for a swap of Western hostages and Arab detainees in Israeli jails.
It followed several days of intensive efforts by U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar's special envoy, Giandomenico Picco, to break through the logjam that had apparently tied up the hostage negotiations since the release of British hostage Jack Mann, 77, on Sept. 24.
Picco returned to the Middle East this week after talks in New York with Lubrani and Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati.
News agencies in Beirut reported that Picco held a marathon meeting in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley on Tuesday with representatives of Shiite Muslim kidnapers in an effort to revive the talks.
Picco is said to have driven Tuesday to the village of Nabi Sheet, the hometown of two senior officials of the Iranian-backed group that is believed to act as an umbrella organization for the hostage holders, Hezbollah, or Party of God.
Picco reportedly left the meeting place on Wednesday and returned to Damascus for consultations by telephone with Perez de Cuellar, in New York, who has refused to comment on the negotiations except to say that "things are moving."
"This is a matter which is extremely, extremely sensitive, and that is why I have to refrain from any comment which would spoil the chances of getting some good results," he said.
Picco was reportedly back in Beirut on Sunday, though his precise whereabouts were unknown.
The U.N. communique said Picco had successful talks in recent days with Abu Abdallah, a representative of the organization holding the hostages.
"The envoy of the secretary general has been in close contact with those concerned to make possible the continuation of the process," the U.N. statement said, adding that "cooperation will indeed be needed for the complete solution of this humanitarian problem."
The head of the Beirut office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Christophe Harnisch, spent three hours in the Israeli security zone in south Lebanon on Sunday but refused to comment on the purpose of his mission.
An Israeli-run prison in the town of Khiam, inside the security zone, is the lodging place of most of the 300 Lebanese and Palestinian detainees held by Israel in that area.
The U.N. intervention in the hostage dilemma began after the Aug. 8 release of British journalist John McCarthy, who carried with him a letter from the hostage takers requesting the aid of the international organization in ending the long-running drama.
Two other hostages, American Edward Austin Tracy and Mann, have been released since.
Free-lance journalist Marilyn Raschka, in Beirut, contributed to this report.