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Briefing Paper : Rumor Aside, Hurdles High for Hostage Swap : The Background:


In mid-June, the Tehran Times said its Beirut correspondent had word that six Americans and two Britons held hostage by Muslim militants somewhere in Lebanon might be released within a few days. Fares Bouez, the Lebanese foreign minister, told Beirut reporters his information had the foreign captives free "in the coming two weeks." More than two weeks later, nothing has happened, and hopes for any quick action are fading. "There is no progress, not even 1%," a ranking figure in Lebanon's pro-Iranian circles said.

Hostage rumors start on the slightest breeze of news, or they are compiled of diplomatic and journalistic presumptions passed back and forth across the Middle East. With the end of the Gulf War, Iran was seen to be in good repute, and President Hashemi Rafsanjani, looking to improve ties with the West, appeared in ascendancy over his radical rivals. Iranian influence, analysts presumed, would be used on behalf of the hostages, and that assumption still fuels most hopes for a hostage release.

In time--for most--rumors become fact. Of the 71 Westerners held captive for 24 hours or more since the kidnapings of foreigners began in Lebanon in 1984, all but 11 have been released or reported slain by their captors.

For the remaining captives--the Americans, Britons, two Germans and an Italian--ensnared in the cruel feuds of the Middle East, the rumors sweep by unnoticed. The foreigners have little news of the world outside their rooms, so they long for information. Take, for example, the description by Irishman Brian Keenan, a 40-year-old university lecturer and the latest hostage released (last Aug. 24), of Associated Press correspondent Terry A. Anderson, the longest-held captive:

He's "a bit of a bulky and belligerent newspaperman who had a voracious hunger for intellectual conversation; and when he did not get it he would pace the floor endlessly in his patched, re-patched and even more patched but very holey socks. . . . I think Terry debated with himself a lot, while we tried to plug our ears with bits of mattress."

Why the Skepticism:

The accounts of prospective hostage deals lean to the superficial, according to political analysts in Beirut and elsewhere who have watched them develop over the years. While the Iranian and Syrian regimes might want to improve their standing with the West and help remove a problem that all governments agree is causing unnecessary aggravation, the deals themselves take a lot of gritty bargaining in which the hostages are merely chips.

Basically, these analysts say, it gets down to politics and money--Western governments cannot free the hostages with high-flown appeals on human rights. Some European governments--France and Belgium, for instance--have paid either in cash or in kind (usually arms) for the release of their hostages, the insiders claim.

Officials in Paris and Brussels deny that kidnapers have been paid off, but there are no more French or Belgian captives.

Observers in Beirut say the captors cannot understand the American refusal to deal. Hostage-taking and trading is a traditional tactic in Middle East conflicts, and a method widespread in the Lebanese civil war. The kidnapers were reportedly disappointed with the lack of response from Washington in April, 1990, when American educators Robert Polhill and Frank H. Reed were freed within eight days of each other.

The militants apparently hold no hope of getting cash for their U.S. captives but want Washington to squeeze Israel for political payoffs, specifically the release of Muslim prisoners, both Palestinian and Lebanese, including Abdel Karim Obeid, a Shiite Muslim cleric abducted from his home by Israeli commandos in July, 1989.

The Big Three:

In claiming credit for abductions, kidnapers have used a revolutionary songbook of organizational names--Islamic Jihad, Revolutionary Justice Organization, Arab Commando Cell, Holy Warriors for Freedom, Organization of the Oppressed on Earth and the like.

But intelligence reports say most of the abductions have been the work of three Lebanese Shiite families--the Mughniyahs, the Hamadis and the Musawis--originally bent on picking up trade bait for relatives arrested and jailed abroad for terrorist operations.

Mughniyah and Musawi cousins were involved in 1983 bombing attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait, and were among 17 people tried and jailed there. The Hamadis were involved in the 1985 hijacking of a TWA flight from Athens, which was diverted to Beirut where an American sailor aboard the plane was shot to death.

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