BEIRUT — After a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at winning the release of the remaining 39 American hostages being held here, Lebanese Shia Muslim leader Nabih Berri said Thursday that he believes the two-week-old hijacking of TWA Flight 847 may be nearing the end.
Berri sounded increasingly upbeat that the hostages may be freed as part of a deal with Israel, which holds 735 Lebanese prisoners whose release has been demanded by the plane's hijackers as the price of freedom for the Americans.
"I think we're in the end of this thing," Berri was quoted as telling foreign reporters about the hostage-taking.
'I'm Less Pessimistic'
And in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Berri said, "I'm less pessimistic that we can arrive (at a solution) this week."
Berri acknowledged that a proposal of his to transfer the hostages to the French Embassy in Beirut is no longer being considered. Speaking to CBS News, Berri said that he now believes that transferring the hostages to Damascus, the capital of Syria, is the most likely alternative.
Berri added that he was "optimistic this will end well . . . but it may take two or three days."
While Berri was giving a series of interviews to network correspondents, three hostages appeared at a Beirut restaurant with officials of Amal, the Shia Muslim militia of which Berri is the leader, and told ABC News that they are being well treated. One hostage called his wife on the Greek island of Corfu earlier in the day, and another telephoned his girlfriend.
Berri, who is also justice minister in the shaky government of President Amin Gemayel, has been acting as mediator for the hijackers, believed to be Shia Muslim fundamentalists.
On Wednesday, Berri proposed turning the remaining hostages over to a Western embassy in West Beirut, such as those of France and Switzerland, or sending the plane and hostages to Syria.
He said that the transfer of the hostages in such a fashion would be conditional on the host government's agreeing not to free them until the 735 Lebanese in Israel's Atlit Prison are released.
Awaiting U.S. Reply
Berri said Thursday that he was still awaiting a reply to the plan from the United States.
France on Thursday responded ambiguously to Berri's proposal, saying that while it wished to help the hostages, the French government would not "substitute ourselves for the jailers." The Swiss government issued a similar statement, saying its Beirut embassy would take the hostages "only if no conditions are set and it receives the assurance that it can take the people concerned to Switzerland or another place to release them."
In Tel Aviv, diplomatic sources were quoted as saying that the plan to involve the French Embassy in Beirut fell through because France was unwilling to accept the hostages for more than a brief period, such as 48 hours.
"The French option is definitely dead," the Associated Press quoted one source as saying, and Berri's later interview with CBS News confirmed that statement.
Marcel Laugel, the French charge d'affaires in the Lebanese capital, met with Berri on Thursday morning, saying afterwards that he felt like a half-filled bottle, "half optimistic and half pessimistic."
Laugel denied earlier reports that two Frenchmen who were kidnaped here May 22, in an abduction unrelated to the TWA hijacking, were handed over by their kidnapers to Berri's militia on Thursday.
2 French Included
Laugel said that the two, Jean-Paul Kauffmann, a journalist, and Michel Seurat, an academic researcher, are "in good shape and alive" in Beirut, but he had no other word on their whereabouts.
Berri had announced that the two Frenchmen would be released by their kidnapers, who were not identified, at the same time that the Americans are set free.
The inclusion of the Frenchmen was seen as a possible inducement for France to get further involved in the negotiations, because it would be politically difficult for Paris to help the Americans get their freedom without also helping the four French victims of Beirut kidnapings. Besides Kauffmann and Seurat, they are Marcel Fontaine and Marcel Carton, both diplomats, who were kidnaped March 22.
Israeli radio said in its Arabic-language broadcast earlier Thursday that France had formally asked Israel to release its Lebanese prisoners during a 48-hour period beginning when the American hostages would be turned over to its embassy in Beirut.
At Sensitive Stage
The United States and Israel announced that they have imposed a news blackout on the complex negotiations. Amal officials said they are considering joining the blackout, suggesting that the talks have reached a particularly sensitive stage.
Berri gave little indication of the reason for his optimism that the hostage crisis may be nearing a solution, but longtime residents of this capital have noted a tendency in periods of crisis for Lebanese leaders to indicate optimism publicly, even when they had serious private doubts.