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Sitting Ducks

February 19, 1988

The State Department says that the kidnaping in southern Lebanon of Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, a Marine attached to the U.N. Truce Supervisory Organization, won't change the longstanding U.S. policy of providing soldiers to the observer group. That intention ought to be reexamined. Certainly the United States doesn't want to be perceived as cowering in the face of terrorism or running away from its international responsibilities. But showing firmness shouldn't require deliberately keeping American citizens in harm's way. Higgins is one of 16 Americans attached to UNTSO, a small unarmed branch of the 5,800-man U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon. The risks that he faced are shared by his 15 countrymen.

It's unclear who seized Higgins. The working assumption is that along with the eight other Americans who remain hostages in Lebanon he is being held by Hezbollah, an Iranian-financed Shia Muslim group that also has ties to Syria. A caller to a Western news agency in Beirut who claimed to represent Higgins' captors accused him of being a CIA agent. The authenticity of the caller can't be determined, but the charge is chilling. William Buckley, who did work for the CIA in Lebanon, was kidnaped by Hezbollah and tortured to death.

It is illegal now for Americans to go to Lebanon because of the particular dangers facing them there, although along with the Americans assigned to UNTSO a skeleton U.S. diplomatic mission does continue to function. The diplomats have some military protection. The military men attached to UNTSO, ironically, seem to have almost none. Americans are in UNTSO as evidence of this country's commitment to peacekeeping. That is a worthwhile purpose, but it is not worth placing lives in avoidable jeopardy. Unless ways can quickly be found to give the Americans attached to UNTSO much better security, prudence argues strongly for their withdrawal.

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