BEIRUT — Fearing a bloody rescue attempt, Muslim gunmen spirited about 30 American hostages from a hijacked TWA jetliner in the darkness before dawn Monday and held them captive in secret locations in Lebanon's chaotic capital, Nabih Berri, head of the Shia Muslim Amal militia, announced.
Berri told a news conference that the hostages were moved on his orders from the plane for their own safety. He added, "We don't want anyone to know where they are placed now."
A strong element of confusion was later injected into the situation by an unidentified airport official who told the Associated Press that all of the hostages were still aboard the plane.
Lunch for Hostages Reported
The official, who said he belongs to Berri's Amal militia, said he served lunch to the hostages on the plane Monday afternoon, long after the time Berri said they were removed.
The AP reported that other airport officials, who also declined to be identified, said that no hostages left the plane after Sunday night's release of Robert Peel Sr., 58, of Hutchinson, Kan., who was taken to a Beirut hospital and later flown to Cyprus.
Yet Berri said flatly: "I personally ordered their (the hostages') evacuation because we were afraid of an operation or a battle in which all of them would have been killed."
And a senior Reagan Administration official said Monday evening that the Administration believes all the hostages except the crew have been moved from the plane and dispersed around Beirut.
Berri, speaking at his sandbag-protected home in Muslim-controlled West Beirut, said the hostages were placed under guard of some of the hijackers and of Amal militiamen somewhere in Beirut. He declined, however, to say whether they were being held in a single location or in several different places.
Beirut's Christian-controlled Voice of Lebanon radio said the hostages were distributed in groups of three or four in strongholds of Berri's Shia militia.
TWA officials in New York said they believe that the three-man crew of the hijacked plane was still aboard. Berri said that some of the hijackers also remained aboard the plane.
TWA also released a list of the names of 44 people, all but one of them Americans, who were aboard Flight 847 when it was hijacked Friday after taking off from Athens and who were still missing Monday and presumed to be hostages. These included the crew, the 30-odd passengers reportedly taken off the plane early Monday and the seven passengers with Jewish-sounding names reported to have been led away from the plane by accomplices of the hijackers during an earlier stop at Beirut.
Berri, who is justice minister in the shaky Cabinet of Lebanon's President Amin Gemayel, became involved in the hostage crisis after the jet returned to Beirut on Sunday for the third time. It had earlier made two stops each here and in Algiers. The Amal leader agreed to mediate in the crisis, he said Sunday, "after the hijackers gave a guarantee that they will not hurt any of the hostages."
At his news conference Monday, Berri explained his role in the situation as limited and said, "If I arrive (at a solution), that's okay. If they don't accept me I will say okay, goodby. I will lift my hands. That's all."
Berri insisted that the heavily armed Shia Mulims who hijacked the TWA plane Friday as it left Athens en route to Rome--and who murdered an American passenger Saturday--were not members of Amal and that he had not sanctioned the action beforehand.
He said the hijackers are Shia fundamentalists "in the same line" as the pro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God), a Lebanese body that follows the teachings of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran.
Key Hijack Demand
Berri said he has adopted the key demand of the hijackers that Israel free 700 to 800 Shia prisoners in exchange for the hostages' freedom. The Israel prisoners are held in Atlit prison near the port of Haifa.
"The hostages are safe and their lives are not under any threat, but the Americans have to look at things with both eyes. Let them also show concern over our people in Atlit," he said.
Berri attacked the U.S. position that it will not negotiate with terrorists to free the hijack hostages, saying it is a "one-eyed" policy.
"More than 700 people are in Atlit by hijacking. No difference at all," Berri said. "They (the Israelis) did it like hijacking. No difference if you do that on the ground or in the air."
Berri said that his orders for the removal of the hostages from the plane were carried out after midnight, when his militiamen had cleared the airport of journalists and switched off the lights.
Asked if journalists would be allowed to see the hostages, Berri said, "No one can see them today (Monday)," but he promised to arrange for reporters to visit the hostages later.
'This Is Not Grenada'
Asked if he expected an American military operation, Berri said, "Then the United States would bring troubles to itself.