NICOSIA, Cyprus — Forty-five minutes before the threatened execution of another American hostage, Shiite Muslim militants in Lebanon announced Thursday night that they had suspended the sentence, citing the influence of U.S. pressure.
The pro-Iranian Revolutionary Justice Organization, in a handwritten communique given to news agencies in Beirut, declared:
"In respect of the intervention by some states and parties that were asked by the United States to mediate and stop the execution, we announce the freezing of the death sentence" against Joseph J. Cicippio, a 58-year-old university official abducted almost three years ago.
In return, the captors demanded the acceptance "within a few days" of what they called an "initiative" or the initiative would be canceled.
Relatives Are Relieved
In Norristown, Pa., news of the suspension brought relief to Cicippio's relatives.
"We are happy and delighted," Thomas Cicippio, 65, brother of the hostage, told reporters. "This gives them much more time to get together and get this thing worked out."
"We have to keep pushing forward. We cannot wait for another crisis," David Cicippio, 29, one of Cicippio's sons, said.
The captors' statement sought "the release of Sheik (Abdel Karim) Obeid and a number of strugglers in the Palestinian intifada ," the uprising against Israeli rule in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as freedom for "Lebanese heroes in the resistance against Israeli occupation."
The communique said a list of the prisoners cited would be provided to representatives of the International Red Cross. The reference to "Lebanese heroes" appeared to mean Shiite guerrillas captured by the Israelis in their security zone north of the Lebanon-Israel border.
No direct reference to a prisoner swap was made, although Israel had proposed such a trade Monday shortly before the apparent execution of Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, another hostage. An Israeli commando team abducted Obeid, a leader of the radical Hezbollah organization, and two Shiite colleagues a week ago today from the southern Lebanese village of Jibchit, a strike that within 48 hours had escalated into the broader hostage crisis.
Israeli officials said their initial aim in seizing Obeid, 36, was to exchange him for three Israeli soldiers held captive in Lebanon.
The statement did not say specifically that the execution order against Cicippio would be restored if the initiative is rejected. On the face of it, the radicals appeared to demand the release of Obeid and the other prisoners in return for sparing Cicippio--a bargain the Israelis in essence have already turned down.
However, the communique appeared to buy time for diplomats and negotiators to try to resolve the crisis.
Western diplomats told Reuters news agency that the Algerian ambassador to Beirut, Khalid Hasnawi, has had contacts with Hezbollah at the United States' request to try to prevent the murder of Cicippio or other hostages. Algeria played a key role in helping to win freedom for 52 U.S. diplomats held hostage in Tehran after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Videotape of Cicippio
Before announcing the suspension, the captors had deferred the execution for four hours Thursday "in response to an appeal" by Cicippio, the deputy comptroller of the American University of Beirut. Accompanying the statement delivered to news agencies about two hours before the original deadline was a videotape of Cicippio urging Israel to free Obeid.
"I appeal to each person who have honor, who can move to release Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid: Don't be late because they are very serious to hang us and the period comes very soon and the hours are very little," he said in a husky voice.
Apparently reading from an off-camera statement scripted in poor English grammar, probably written by his captors, Cicippio addressed his wife, Ilham, a Lebanese living in Beirut: "My dear wife and people and all the human societies and especially the Red Cross, don't leave me. . . . We, the American people, are always the victims of Israel's politics, and President Bush hasn't helped to free us.
"Goodby, my wife," he concluded, near tears. "If you don't hear my voice and see my face again, I want you to look after yourself and don't be sad."
His wife said after hearing of the suspension: "I am very happy. I never lost hope. I hope this part of the ordeal is all over."
The 90-second videotape was the first proof that the Norristown, Pa., native was still alive. He was kidnaped Sept. 12, 1986.
Cicippio, bearded and looking haggard, was wearing a blue warmup suit with a striped top. Edward Tracy, a 58-year-old American author and book salesman kidnaped in October, 1987, wore a similar suit in a photo released Monday night along with the original written threat to execute Cicippio. The deadline for Cicippio's death has now been deferred three times.