DAMASCUS, Syria — A Shiite Muslim group in Lebanon said this morning that it will release an American hostage by 2 a.m. PDT today.
The statement from the pro-Iranian Revolutionary Justice Organization was delivered to a Western news agency in Beirut.
Hopes for the early release of the hostage were raised by the freeing earlier today of French relief worker Jerome Leyraud, kidnaped last Thursday on a Beirut street. Leyraud, 26, who had been threatened with death if any other Western hostages in Lebanon were released, was handed over to police and taken to a police station in west Beirut, a police spokesman said.
The Revolutionary Justice Organization is believed to hold Joseph J. Cicippio, 60, an American University of Beirut controller abducted Sept. 12, 1986, and Edward A. Tracy, 60, an author and book salesman kidnaped in October, 1986. The group did not indicate which man it would release.
But in a message Saturday, the organization said it would free one of the hostages within 72 hours. The message, delivered to a news service, was accompanied by a photograph of Cicippio.
This morning's message was accompanied by a color photograph of Tracy.
"The Revolutionary Justice Organization announces bringing forward the date of releasing the American hostage to noon on Sunday, August 11, 1991," the statement said.
The statement asked that representatives of the United Nations, Syria and Iran pick up the hostage at the Beau Rivage Hotel in Beirut.
"In light of the speedy developments and positive, encouraging atmosphere regarding ongoing negotiations to resolve the issue of our brothers detained in the prisons of the world headed by Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid," the kidnapers message said. "To avoid delaying the release operation, they should be on time."
The first message Saturday from the Revolutionary Justice Organization came four days after another Shiite cell, Islamic Jihad, pledged to release an American hostage. That group, which released British hostage John McCarthy on Thursday, holds two Americans: Associated Press correspondent Terry A. Anderson and Thomas M. Sutherland, acting dean of agriculture at the American University of Beirut. It included a photo of Anderson with its message to the media.
The first indication that Leyraud, a volunteer with the Paris-based medical relief organization Doctors of the World, would be freed came in a phone call today to an international news agency in Beirut. A man claiming to represent the Organization for the Defense of Prisoners' Rights said Leyraud would be freed to help win the release of Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails.
On Saturday, the Voice of Lebanon, a Christian radio station, reported that security forces had warned Leyraud's kidnapers to free him by noon local time Saturday or police and army troops would raid homes in the poor Shiite suburbs where many hostages have been held. Troops ringed the Lebanese capital with roadblocks, searching the trunks of cars leaving the city.
U.S. officials said they are uncertain whether the latest developments mean that two Americans held by two different groups might be freed. Both the Revolutionary Justice Organization and Islamic Jihad are believed to be pro-Iranian extremist cells operating under the umbrella of Hezbollah, or Party of God, but it is not clear to what extent they overlap or coordinate their actions.
The White House on Saturday repeated its call for the prompt, unconditional release of all persons "held outside the legal system" in the Middle East.
At his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Me., President Bush said the Administration continues to receive reports from unspecified "diplomatic sources" that a captive would be released. But he warned against raising false hopes.
"Generally speaking, I think there's an expectation, but I keep saying that it's a cruel business, and that it is hard when you raise the hopes of one family, and only to have those diminished," Bush said before teeing off at the Cape Arundel Golf Club.
U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar appeared optimistic as he arrived Saturday in London, where he is scheduled to meet today with freed British hostage McCarthy. "At this stage we already have one back, so I think there are reasons for believing they are going to move," Perez de Cuellar said.
McCarthy, a television journalist who was freed after five years in captivity, is scheduled to give Perez de Cuellar a sealed letter from his Islamic Jihad captors. The message is believed to state the terms for freeing additional hostages.
Officials in Washington and Damascus played down prospects for a wide-ranging settlement to free all Western hostages without an agreement by Israel to free an estimated 375 Arab captives held by an Israeli-controlled militia in southern Lebanon. The Arab prisoners include Shiite cleric Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, abducted by Israeli commandos in 1989.