Hostage report -- they're in good shape

They sleep on mattresses in former embassy offices. A few are still kept alone. Some, after 164 days in captivity, are depressed. One, according to persistent but still unconfirmed reports, has attempted suicide.

But all the American Embassy hostages now seem in generally good shape, according to a Red Cross team that visited the captive mission here April 14.

That should provide some reassurance for relatives back home.

But ironically, the long-sought visit could also complicate President Carter's bid for widened Western pressure on Iran to release the hostages once and for all.

Moreover, by late April 15, due to conditions for the visit that were set by the embassy's militant captors, there was no airtight confirmation that International Red Cross representative Harald Schmid de Grueneck had actually seen all the hostages.

He said he was absolutely sure he had seen them all, something no foreign observer had accomplished since the students stormed the embassy last Nov. 4. But in keeping with a pledge to the militants, he would not say exactly how many he visited.

Washington says there are 50 hostages in the Tehran embassy. However, an official of Iran's local Red Cross affiliate, who along with a Swiss doctor joined Mr. de Grueneck in the eight-hour visit, says he heard "Iranians insie the embassy say there were 49 hostages."

Diplomats said the dispute over the n umber, which has surfaced periodically throughout the hostage crisis, could move toward resolution as the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) begins phoning relatives of the hostages and forwarding brief notes collected from each of the interviewed Americans.

The hostage visit, meanwhile, took place at a price some diplomats privately resented: a waiver of traditional ICRC demands that prisoners be seen individually and in complete privacy.

At least one of the student militants witnessed all the interviews, Mr. de Grueneck said. An Iranian colleague said that the state television had filmed at least some of the sessions. Still photographers snapped away at others.

But the three interviewers -- also joined briefly by the Iranian health minister and Tehran's chief Muslim preacher -- did manage to get a rare and apparently encouraging glimpse of living conditions inside the captive embassy.

That, Mr. de Grueneck suggested, made the visit well worth it.

The two Swiss Red Cross officials refused detailed comment on the visit, saying only that all the hostages had been seen and that none seemed in serious trouble. But a fuller picture emerged from informed diplomats, Iranian members of the visiting delegation, and sources close to them:

The Red Cross men, it was learned, had managed to see even hostages publicly accused of "spying," as well as embassy political officer Michael Metrinko. Mr. Metrinko, according to unconfirmed reports both from Iranian officials and diplomats, had attempted suicide and was briefly hospitalized.

But when seen April 14, he reportedly said he was feeling fine.

What he did not say -- but other witnesses did -- was that he and several more captives still seem to be kept in isolation.

"It is not really solitary confinement," said one of the Iranian visitors to the embassy. "His quarters are spacious. But he is clearly living alone. A few others were also alone."

The rest, seen in their "normal place of detention," were with one or more roommates. Or, more accurately, officemates. All the captives seemed quartered in former embassy offices with mattresses on the floor.

When the visiting delegation showed up -- entering blindfolded, according to a student security precaution -- a few of the hostages were playing Ping-Pong. The two women excluded from the November release of 13 black and female hostages were watching a video film.

About five of the Americans, according to the representative from the Iranian Red Cross affiliate, complained of "minor" physical problems. (All have daily access to medical care, if needed.)

Others, it was learned, seemed depressed. But one visitor remarked, "What do you expect after nearly six months of confinement? Generally, they seemed adequately treated and fine."

Despite the students' presence, the Americans sometimes talked "quite freely about the problems of detention," another witness said.

But none reportedly complained about the food, certainly not about the cannelloni lunch served up on the day of the Red Cross visit.

The delegation gave the impression that the hostages' living conditions had improved in recent weeks. In one office chamber, two young hostages had just added a coat of paint and propped up pictures of their girlfriends and relatives.

But detention, no matter how much the conditions improve, remains detention. The Red Cross men made this clear even in their guarded public comments on the visit.

Some European diplomats, meanwhile, suggested that a peek at hostage conditions might actually have snagged US efforts to win tightened Western pressure in Iran to end the hostage crisis.

One diplomat disclosed that two West European governments and hesitated even at joining the recent group recall of European Community ambassadors for consultation on the nearly 25 week-old embassy impasse.

"My suspicion is that some European governments may try to use the fact that all the hostages seem finally to have been seen, as an excuse," he said.

The diplomat, who has participated in months of apparently fruitless efforts to inch Iran toward a hostage release, argued such a European strategy would be "pathetic."

"Let's say all the hostages have been seen," he explained. "The visit wasn't under the conditions we would have liked. There were no private interviews and even if there had been, we can't forget that the real issue isn't to see the hostages but to get them out."

Will President Carter now ease pressure on US allies to begin leaning on Iran? No, was the consensus reply among Tehran diplomats.

But, in another European envoy's words, the American task "could be more difficult now."

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