WASHINGTON — National security adviser Robert C. McFarlane said Wednesday that at least six of 40 U.S. hostages from hijacked TWA Flight 847 are under the control of Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim element strongly influenced by Iran and more extreme than the Amal militia, which claims to hold the rest of the Americans in Beirut.
But McFarlane, after briefing a group of 69 senators on the situation, told reporters that Amal leader Nabih Berri has indicated "he is in a position to influence the welfare of all" the hostages.
The disclosure came as the Reagan Administration continued the ticklish task of trying to arrange for the hostages' release without appearing to negotiate or knuckle under to blackmail by the terrorists. They have demanded the release of 766 Shia Muslims taken prisoner during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and now held in an Israeli prison.
The Administration thus is highly sensitive to any hint that it might be angling to bargain its way out of the crisis. White House spokesman Larry Speakes flatly rejected suggestions that the United States is trying to pressure Israel into releasing its Shia prisoners to secure the freedom of the Americans.
"We have not and will not apply any pressure on any government to give in to the demands of hijackers," Speakes insisted. He also denied that the two countries are secretly arranging a prisoner release. "There is no unsaid, unspoken deal," he said to reporters on Air Force One as Reagan flew from Washington to Indiana for a speaking engagement.
The President, during a news conference Tuesday, ruled out any concessions to the hijackers. Although he did not specifically address the possibility of negotiations, other officials have consistently excluded direct negotiations since the crisis began Friday. A few hours before Reagan met the press Tuesday, Speakes told reporters: "Our policy is not to give in to the--to negotiate with the terrorists--not to give in to the demands and not to ask others to do the same."
A senior State Department official underscored that theme in an interview Wednesday. "Our policy remains a very firm one," he said. "No negotiations, no concessions. But we are willing to talk to anyone about the safety of U.S. citizens."
Officials of the Geneva-based International Committee for the Red Cross said in Switzerland that the United States has asked the organization to approach the Israelis about their plans to release the 766 Shias. A senior State Department official confirmed that such a contact has been made, but he insisted that the White House has never asked the Red Cross to negotiate a hostage release.
Similarly, both McFarlane and Secretary of State George P. Shultz said in separate Capitol Hill appearances that they do not want the Red Cross making deals on behalf of the United States.
McFarlane said Reginald Bartholomew, the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, remains in periodic contact with Berri, whom the national security chief described as "in a position to release the hostages." He said American officials had been "assured" that the bulk of the hostages are under Berri's control, while the three members of the TWA cockpit crew remain on the plane at Beirut airport.
McFarlane also said, however, that another half-dozen or more passengers, removed from the plane last Friday after the hijackers concluded that they had Jewish-sounding names, were being held by more "extreme elements"--which he identified as the Hezbollah group.
Hezbollah, or Party of God, is a rival of Berri and Amal for the allegiance of Lebanon's large Shia Muslim community. But trying to define other differences between the groups highlights the confusion confronting U.S. officials:
While Amal has both secular and religious wings, Hezbollah has an exclusively religious bent and is strongly influenced, though not necessarily directed, by the Iranian regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
'Not Like the Kiwanis'
American officials consider Berri a somewhat moderate force in the chaotic context of Lebanese Shia politics, but Hezbollah is thought to be intractable and almost impossible to negotiate with. U.S. officials suspect that, in addition to holding some of the airliner hostages, the group is behind the abductions of eight other Americans in Beirut during the last 15 months.
Some Mideast experts who have advised the State Department cautioned that the divisions between the two groups may not be as sharp as Reagan Administration officials suggest. Though the leadership of Amal is more moderate, they say, some of the movement's rank-and-file members are also believed to be active in Hezbollah.
"These aren't organizations with membership lists like the Kiwanis club," said one analyst who spoke on the condition that he not be identified.
White House spokesman Speakes, citing unspecified "diplomatic contacts," said Wednesday that the United States has set "things in motion that could bring some benefit."