TYRE, Lebanon — Shia Muslim militiamen rounded up 100 pro-Iranian fundamentalists Thursday in an intense search for a kidnaped U.S. Marine officer, whose abduction was claimed by a previously unknown group that said it seized him because he is a CIA agent.
At about the same time, the Marine's 72-year-old father died of heart failure more than 6,000 miles away in Kentucky.
An anonymous caller to a Western news agency in Beirut, claiming to speak for the "Islamic Revolutionary Brigades," took responsibility for the kidnaping Wednesday of Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, 43, who headed a United Nations truce group and became the ninth American hostage in Lebanon.
"William Higgins has become one of the hostages," the caller said. "He will not be released before trying him on grounds that he is one of the CIA directors in southern Lebanon."
He said Higgins was moved out of southern Lebanon, where he was abducted, and that the group soon would release a statement and a photograph of the officer to back up the claim. It could not be verified independently.
Area Sealed Off
U.N. peacekeeping troops and about 1,500 Amal militiamen virtually sealed off a 300-square-mile area in their search for the Marine.
"We want Higgins back and we have no red line as far as his case is concerned," said Daoud Daoud of the Amal militia, the dominant force around the ancient port of Tyre.
He warned that his forces will resort "to all sorts of methods" to force the release of Higgins, the head of the 75-member Lebanon unit of the U.N. Truce Supervisory Organization.
In Louisville, Ky., the Marine's father, William F. Higgins, died at Humana Hospital-Audubon on Thursday morning of congestive heart failure, a hospital spokeswoman said.
"He never knew that his son had been taken captive. It was a blessing that he didn't know," said Harold Fisher, the officer's brother-in-law.
In Washington, President Reagan told reporters that U.S. officials are "doing everything we can" to secure Higgins' release and added, "We're just trying to find out as much as we can and try to get him located, and certainly we want to rescue him."
Aides scrambled to correct Reagan's remarks when the President's suggestion of a "rescue" sparked speculation. Administration officials later said that Reagan merely expressed the hope of seeing Higgins freed, perhaps through U.N. efforts. There was no intent to signal a possible military rescue operation, they said.
Nor was there any indication that U.S. intelligence agencies had a fix on his location.
Higgins, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, was snatched from the second of two white-painted U.N. vehicles that were traveling south on a coastal road from the port city of Tyre, 46 miles south of Beirut, toward the town of Naqoura near the Israeli frontier.
Higgins, of Danville, Ky., was seized after leaving a meeting in Tyre with Amal's political and information official, Abdel-Majid Saleh. The stretch of road where the kidnaping occurred is contested by the Amal militia and the more radical Hezbollah (Party of God), which is backed by Iran.
Meanwhile, a U.N. spokesman said Higgins was violating rules for travel by Americans in dangerous areas of Lebanon when he was abducted.
Timur Goksel, spokesman for the nine-nation, 5,800-man U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, said that since the kidnapings of Americans and other foreigners began in Lebanon in 1984, American members of U.N. units have been restricted to the headquarters area and can travel in Lebanon only with a U.N. military escort.
"Higgins felt he couldn't abide by these restrictions," Goksel said. "He assured us there would be no problems," Goksel added. "Higgins felt that as chief, he should be out with his men and know what they are doing."
Sixteen other Americans in the force, as well as half a dozen U.S. civilians, have continued to work in south Lebanon.