Pressure builds on US, France to make deal on Lebanon captives
Prompted by Washington's apparent deal with Moscow in the Daniloff affair, pro-Iranian captors of American and French hostages in Lebanon are stepping up pressure for their demands to be met. The Reagan administration's concessions to the Soviets seem to have demoralized the American hostages. They share with their captors an interest in making their plight a political issue in Washington, observers in region say.
The Islamic Jihad (Holy War) group distributed a videotape in Beirut last Friday showing two American hostages, Terry Anderson and David Jacobsen. The captives accused President Reagan of giving in to the Soviets to free Daniloff, while refusing to negotiate on the demands of the Islamic Jihad. The secretive, Iranian-inspired faction is demanding the release of 17 Muslim extremists jailed for bomb attacks in Kuwait in December 1983.
And on Monday, the wing of the Islamic Jihad which has held three French hostages -- embassy officials Marcel Fontaine and Marcel Carton, and journalist Jean-Paul Kauffmann -- more than a year issued a similar video. All three French captives bitterly criticized Paris for its ``inaction'' in meeting their abductors' demands.
An accompanying statement also linked freedom for the French hostages with the release of the 17 Muslim convicts in Kuwait. This is the first time since May 1985 that the faction holding the French hostages had issued that particular demand. This suggested to some observers that the abductors may have been encouraged by the Daniloff-Zakharov ``swap.''
``It is blackmail,'' said one French observer. ``The kidnappers before were concentrating on demands relating to French policy vis-`a-vis Iran and Iraq. Now that Paris has started to improve its relations with Iran, the demands have changed.''
In June, France ``encouraged'' exiled Iranian opposition leader Massoud Rajavi to quit his exile near Paris, to the delight of Tehran. The French government has also been negotiating with the Iranians over the return of a $1 billion loan made to Paris by the former Shah of Iran, whose successors want the money back.
In its statement with the video of the two American hostages, the Islamic Jihad said: ``Our demands are clear and known to all. Their achievement would mean the release of the hostages. Any talk beyond this issue is a mirage.''
But even if the demand for the release of the prisoners in Kuwait were to be met, doubts have been expressed that the American hostages would really be freed. ``Their demands would just switch to more general political issues like US policy in the gulf or elsewhere,'' said one Shiite observer in Beirut.
For now, chances of the Islamic Jihad's word being tested appear slim.
Administration officials, including President Reagan himself, have said they may be willing to ``negotiate'' over release of the hostages, but not over the kidnappers' demands. That, they say, would be seen as bowing to terrorism. And a State Department spokesman said Monday that Washington would not press Kuwait to free the 17 jailed extremists.
And even if pressure were to be applied on Kuwait, it is not certain that the Kuwaitis would comply. Kuwait sees itself on the front line against Iranian threats and pressures. Its government refused to give in to similar demands when a Kuwaiti airliner was hijacked to Tehran in December 1984, even though three passengers were killed.
In May 1985, the ruler of Kuwait was the target of an assassination attempt. Authorities blamed that attack and subsequent bomb explosions on the Iranian-backed, fundamentalist al-Dawa party. The 17 fundamentalists jailed for the 1983 bomb attacks are also said to belong to al-Dawa, whose members are mainly radical Shiites from Iraq and Lebanon.
``Even under American pressure, I don't think the Kuwaitis would release the prisoners now,'' says one Arab observer of Kuwaiti affairs. ``If they were going to do that, they would have done so a long time ago.''
Former US Senator James Abourezk, who visited Damascus and Beirut this summer, wrote last week that Syrian President Hafez Assad told him that the US's approach regarding the hostages did not encourage him to do more than Washington on their behalf.
Mr. Abourezk also quoted Lebanese Shiite Amal leader, Nabih Berri, as saying ``we can, but we won't,'' when asked if he could help free the hostages.
Mr. Berri feels that Washington did not fulfil promises he said the US made, relating to the release of Lebanese prisoners by Israel and a full Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, in exchange for his help in ending the June 1985 TWA hijack crisis.
``The Americans let us down,'' says an Amal source. ``We know where the hostages are. But who wants to help the Americans? Why should we make problems for ourselves?''