WASHINGTON — The State Department, seeking to head off more hostage-takings, announced today it has invalidated American passports for travel to Lebanon, saying the situation there is "so chaotic that no American citizen can be considered safe."
Department spokesman Charles Redman announced that effective immediately, passports will not be valid for travel "to, in and through Lebanon." The estimated 1,500 Americans in Lebanon were given a 30-day grace period to allow them to leave.
Exceptions were made for the immediate families of the eight Americans held hostage by terrorist groups in Lebanon. Journalists and others may also apply for special permission to go there, and the U.S. Embassy remains open, although thinly staffed.
Redman said Secretary of State George P. Shultz had determined an "imminent peril" to American citizens in Lebanon following the recent rash of kidnapings.
No Americans Considered Safe
"This determination is not lightly made," Redman said. "The situation in Lebanon is so chaotic that we do not believe any American citizens can be considered safe from terrorist acts."
Redman warned that violators of the passport ban will face up to five years in prison and a $2,000 fine, but he acknowledged that prosecuting them would be difficult.
Only travel to Libya is similarly restricted.
Beirut was once regarded as a Middle Eastern Switzerland, open to people of all nationalities and views. Residents mingled easily together amid modern skyscrapers and elegant shops.
But rival warring factions and the presence of terrorist groups have handicapped the central government's ability to maintain order.
The U.S. action restricting travel represents an admission by Washington that it can no longer protect Americans in the country.
Besides Libya, travel to Cuba by American tourists is all but impossible because the U.S. government prohibits Americans from spending money in the country. The motivation is political--applying an economic squeeze on President Fidel Castro--and not safety, as in the case of Lebanon.
In the past, passport restrictions have been imposed for travel to China, Albania and Yugoslavia, among other countries.
Shultz, in testimony earlier today before the House Budget Committee, would not be specific on whether Americans would be forced in some way to get out of Lebanon, but told the panel, "There are steps we can take and may take shortly."
He said that in the past the United States had offered to ferry out Americans by helicopter if they wanted to take advantage of such an offer. Most of the 1,500 Americans still in Lebanon are dual nationals, he said.
Shultz called Beirut "a chaotic place right now, where people seek to intimidate civilization."
Journalists can apply for individual exemptions that will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Others can apply for such exemptions for travel on humanitarian grounds or activities in the national interest.
The State Department has had a travel advisory in effect for Lebanon since 1975 and has on four occasions evacuated Americans.
There has been a rash of kidnapings of Westerners in Beirut since the arrest in West Germany earlier this month of a suspect in the June, 1985, hijacking of a TWA jetliner and a request from the Reagan Administration that he be extradited to the United States for trial.
Church of England envoy Terry Waite, who has sought to negotiate the release of the hostages, is feared to be the latest victim. A total of 29 Westerners are believed to have been kidnaped in Lebanon.