TYRE, Lebanon — Gunmen kidnaped a U.S. Marine colonel who headed a U.N. truce-monitoring group south of Tyre today, marking the first abduction targeting U.S. officers working with the international force.
Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, 43, chief of a 75-member observer group attached to a U.N. observer group supervising the truce between Israel and Lebanon, disappeared about 2:15 p.m. from a two-car convoy heading south on a coastal highway from the port city, 45 miles south of Beirut.
A Pentagon official in Washington and a UNIFIL spokesman in Lebanon confirmed that Higgins, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran from Louisville, Ky., was in the convoy's back car driving alone when the first vehicle's occupants realized that his enclosed jeep was missing after rounding a curve.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the disappearance of Higgins, who becomes the ninth American held in Lebanon. The Tyre region is controlled by the Shia Amal militia and pro-Iranian Hezbollah fundamentalists.
Meeting With Amal
UNIFIL spokesman Timor Goksel in Naqoura said in a telephone interview that Higgins, associated with the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization, or UNTSO, had just left a meeting with a Shia Amal militia political leader in Tyre when he disappeared.
Goksel said Higgins was on his way to Naqoura. The Pentagon official had earlier said the Marine was headed toward the Rashidiyah refugee camp.
Amal sources said their militiamen started an immediate search for Higgins in the rugged area.
About 2,000 U.N. peace-keeping forces mounted a land and air search, setting up roadblocks in the south to inspect cars and other vehicles while searching from above in two helicopters.
Higgins' white Jeep Wagoneer was clearly marked as a U.N. vehicle, flying the U.N. flags. Goksel said Higgins was wearing his own Marine uniform as well as a blue U.N. beret. He added that members of UNTSO do not carry weapons.
Joined Unit in June
Higgins joined the unit in June and took over the top post Jan. 8, putting him in charge of 75 officers from 16 countries.
Higgins is married to Marine Maj. Robin Higgins, who works in the Pentagon. He has a 17-year-old daughter by a previous marriage.
White House spokesman Roman Popadiuk said President Reagan was informed of the incident at his California ranch before he left on a flight to Washington.
"We are still investigating, trying to learn more about it," Reagan said as he boarded Air Force One.
Before today's abduction, there were 22 foreigners held hostage in Lebanon, including eight Americans.