Freedom for the hostages

Michael Posner,Hal Quinn July 8 1985

Freedom for the hostages

Michael Posner,Hal Quinn July 8 1985

Freedom for the hostages


As the summer sun dipped slowly into the Mediterranean, they gathered in a dusty schoolyard in West Beirut. Finally, the hostages from TWA Flight 847 were ready for an overland trip to Syria after a delay of 24 hours. But as Allyn Conwell read the roll call, hearts sank: nine of the men were missing. Gloom turned to relief as more captives straggled into the yard from various points in the city where Amal militiamen had been holding them. But a second name check revealed one of the men was still unaccounted for. When at last he arrived, Conwell ticked off the 39 names and asked, “Is everybody ready to go home?” A lusty chorus of “Yeahs” left no doubt. With that, the captives—some embracing the militiamen—set off on a voyage to freedom after 17 harrowing days of captivity.

The stay in Syria was brief—just long

enough for the Americans to conduct a hotel press conference, at which they affirmed their well-being and thanked Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who had used his influence in the Middle East to arrange the hostage release. Without Assad’s intervention, said Conwell, the Oman-based oil industry salesman from Houston, Tex., “we would still be in Beirut with an uncertain future.”

Nine hours later a camouflaged U.S. Air Force C-141 Starlifter transport plane landed at the American RheinMain air base in Frankfurt, West Germany. The welcoming party included some relatives, Vice-President George Bush, his wife, Barbara, seven members of Congress and some 300 servicemen. In the early-morning light of the Frankfurt dawn, the hostages climbed down from the plane, some still wrapped in green army-issue blankets, and made their way along the official receiving line. Said Bush: “You endured this cruel and painful experience with courage. America is proud of you. You are back,

and America did not compromise her principles to get you back.”

Then the men moved to the nearby U.S. military hospital at Wiesbaden for voluntary medical check-ups and debriefings. In addition to testing the mental and physical condition of the hostages, U.S. intelligence officials were anxious to learn as much as the hostages could remember about the identities of their captors: members of the radical pro-Iranian Hizbollah (Party of God) Shi’ite sect, who killed one American —navy diver Robert Stethem—during the early hours of the ordeal; and the more moderate Amal militiamen who later seized control of the crisis. The staff at Wiesbaden had ample experience at welcoming returning Americans. At the same site 4 Vè years ago they received 52 Americans, held hostage by Iranian militants for 444 days. Monday morning, 46 American flags hung from the hospital’s second-storey balconies—the additional seven in memory of the other Americans kidnapped in Lebanon over the past 18 months and

Michael Posner

Hal Quinn

still held captive.

Indeed, while clearly delighted with the successful outcome of negotiations, U.S. officials were anxious to discourage a sense of jubilation. In a brief Oval Office address President Ronald Reagan warned that with seven American hostages still in Lebanon, “this is no moment of celebration.” Reagan thanked several countries for their help in ending the TWA ordeal, including Syria, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. He added that Washington would remember those who “stood with us and those who did not.” And in a blunt warning the President declared: “Terrorists, be on notice. We will fight back against you in Lebanon and elsewhere. We will fight back against your cowardly attacks on American citizens and property. Let it be clearly understood that those responsible for terrorist acts must be taken on by civilized nations.”

That statement raised anew the prospect of American retaliation for the hijacking. As Washington sought to put negotiating pressure on Amal leader Nabih Berri, 46, administration spokesmen said that Reagan had received various reprisal options, including the closing of Beirut Airport. Indeed, it was apparently Hizbollah’s concern about a possible U.S. strike at the airport or other punitive measures that delayed the hostages’ release by 24 hours.

After it finally took place, terrorists

attacked three airline offices in Madrid and bombed a car on a street in Athens outside a hotel housing U.S. servicemen. No one was injured in the Athens incident, but in Madrid one person was killed and 25 wounded after a bomb exploded at the main ticket offices of British Airways in the Gran Via shopping district. The blast gutted the pre-

mises and also damaged the upstairs suite rented by Trans World Airlines. On Monday a group called “The Organization of the Oppressed” claimed responsibility “as a direct reply to Ronald Reagan’s threat that he would strike at terrorism.”

At the end of the Beirut drama, all parties attempted to claim victory. The United States insisted that it had not surrendered to terrorism. Israel, from whom Berri’s Amal had demanded the simultaneous release of more than 700 Lebanese detainees, maintained that it had not compromised its anti-terrorist principles. “There is absolutely no linkage,” said Meir Rosenne, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. However, Israel announced plans this week to release about 300 Lebanese prisoners, captured during the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon last spring. Berri, citing Syrian guarantees, had insisted that Israel’s prisoners would be released and that Washington would not retaliate. Berri based his assurances on a generally worded state department communiqué affirming the United States’ long-standing support for the stability of the Lebanese government.

The hostages themselves, welcomed to a ham and eggs breakfast at the 300bed Wiesbaden hospital, survived their ordeal in Beirut with few apparent scars. While they were moved frequently, all were generally well-treated. Even Richard Herzberg, the 32-year-old Jewish-American separated with three other hostages mistakenly believed to be Jews, received a cake from his captors to celebrate the birthday of his wife, Sue Ellen. She, along with about 110 of the TWA passengers, had been freed during the first 72 hours of the crisis.

Arthur Toga, 33, of St. Louis, described the ordeal as “Fellini-esque.” He said: “You’re a political prisoner and at midnight they rush you out of bed to this luxury resort hotel with the biggest swimming pool you’ve ever seen, sit you down to a tablecloth dinner with very fine food and a cake with ‘good luck on your way home’ written on it and let us call our families until three in the morning. It was surrealistic.”

Almost to a man, the 39 Americans drew a clear distinction between the original Hizbollah terrorists and the Amal militiamen who guarded them in Beirut. The hijackers were, in the words of one American, “animals.” Aboard the TWA plane, they rolled back the hammers of their guns as they walked up and down the aisles. But Amal, said Toga, “really reined in those guys.” Indeed, most of the hostages expressed sympathy for Amal in statements to American television during the crisis and after it was over. Said Conwell: “We found things about our fellow man on the other side of the world that we didn’t know

and we found out that they’re human beings. They have the same emotions, the same fears, the same hopes, the same dreams for their country that we all have.”

For several hours on Saturday it appeared that the hostages would be home even sooner. For the first time, 35 hostages gathered in the schoolyard in the Burj al-Barajinah suburb surrounded by heavily armed militiamen. Some reports even claimed that all 39 TWA hostages were on their way to Damascus. The White House contacted families to inform them that the release was imminent. But before Sunday dawned, Washington retracted the reports.

The snag in the hostages’ release developed after wide-spread publication in Lebanon of Reagan’s description of the kidnappers as “thugs, murderers and barbarians.” The extremist Hizbollah members holding four of the hostages apparently interpreted Reagan’s comments as a portent of U.S. retaliation once the hostages were released. They demanded guarantees from both the United States and Israel that there would be no retribution. A state department official declared: “Assad is being asked to go back to his guys in Lebanon and tell them to stop haggling. The price has been set. You cannot renegotiate.”

Finally, the state department issued a statement of support for “the preservation of Lebanon, its government, its stability and its security and for the mitigation of the suffering of its people.” Within hours the four remaining hostages had been turned over to Berri. After the crisis ended, Jill Brown, wife of hostage Robert Brown, said pointedly, “After President Reagan’s speech-1 think they were having doubts and held up the release.”

The first break in the hostage stale-

mate had come almost a week earlier, when Israel released 31 Lebanese from a camp at Atlit. The detainees were turned over to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross at Ras Bayada, eight kilometres north of the Israeli border. In Jerusalem, Israeli Police Minister Haim BarLev maintained that the release was not connected to the demands of the hijackers and Berri. Still, the move seemed clearly designed to test the mood for compromise in Beirut. Berri’s response was anything but encouraging. The Amal leader described the Israeli decision as “political zigzagging” and demanded the “withdrawal of the U.S. Sixth Fleet from our coast.” But on Tuesday Berri allowed the Red Cross to visit the 40 TWA hostages and later au-

thorized the release of Jimmy Dell Palmer, 48, of Little Rock, Ark., for health reasons.

As the crisis moved into its third week, Amal, and Justice Minister Berri in particular, had become experts in using the media to convey their message to Americans. Having granted the American Broadcasting Co. an interview with the TWA crew from the tarmac at Beirut Airport, Berri last week arranged an extraordinary 21/2-hour chat last Thursday between three hostages and ABC at a seaside restaurant. And Friday evening, as the Reagan administration enforced a news blackout on the negotiations, Amal staged another media event over dinner at the luxurious Summerland Hotel on West Beirut’s seafront. By the end of the crisis some of the hostages, particularly Conwell and pilot John Testrake, looked as polished in front of the television cameras as their interviewers.

Back home, Americans prepared for a patriotic ritual, the July 4 celebration of Independence Day. In addition to the fireworks displays, picnics and musical galas, a mighty holiday welcome awaited 39 returning hostages. But this year Americans will temper their celebrations, as the yellow ribbons still flutter from trees and flagpoles across the country. Halfway around the world, hidden in the shantytowns of war-ravaged Beirut, seven of their countrymen are still held captive, the remaining actors in a serial drama pitting the seemingly relentless forces of Moslem fundamentalism against the United States of America.

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