Washington — The release of the Rev. Benjamin Weir from captivity in Lebanon lends a sense of urgency to the fate of the six remaining American hostages. It also puts pressure on the Reagan administration to show what it is doing on behalf of the six. With public attention again focused on the issue, that pressure could build.
The Rev. Mr. Weir said Thursday that his captors let him go with a message for President Reagan demanding freedom for 17 convicted terrorists held in Kuwait in exchange for release of the six Americans. If that demand is not met, Mr. Weir said, the captors are prepared to kidnap other Americans and execute the six hostages. Four Frenchmen and an Englishman are also being held by Lebanese Shiites.
``They have released me as a sign of their good intentions,'' he told a press conference. ``However, they are not willing to wait much longer.''
The Presbyterian missionary urged the United States to consider some creative, new approach -- and to reexamine its policies in the Middle East.
The US is certain not to bow to what is seen to be a terrorist threat and blackmail. Demand for release of the 17 Kuwaiti prisoners is not new; it has been made ever since the Americans were seized. At one stage efforts were made to work something out with Kuwait, but Iran refused to guarantee that there would be no further terrorist attacks against Kuwait.
Administration officials say the US is continuing intensive diplomatic efforts to free the six as ``one of the highest priorities'' and would give ``careful consideration'' to what Mr. Weir said.
A White House spokesman said Thursday that while there was no indication of imminent release, ``we are hopeful.'' He said the US was in touch with a number of governments, including Syria, Britain, and France.
Diplomatic observers say it is difficult to tell whether Mr. Weir's release is the beginning of a wider release, or is simply an isolated case wrapped up with internal Shiite politics. The captives, as in the Iranian and Beirut hostage crises, are being held against the backdrop of social turmoil and a revolutionary struggle for power.
Mr. Weir told newsmen he had seen four of the Americans -- Terry Anderson, David P. Jacobsen, the Rev. Lawrence Jenco, and Thomas Sutherland -- and all appeared well. He knew nothing about the two others, Peter Kilburn and William Buckley, he said.
Wearing a yellow ribbon on his lapel, the bearded clergyman calmly told of his 16-month captivity, a year of which was spent in solitary confinement. Coping with boredom demanded all his ``inner resources,'' he said.
At the outset of his meeting with reporters the Rev. Mr. Weir said he gave ``credit and praise to our heavenly Father for His tender, sustaining power throughout this ordeal.''
Speaking in the National Presbyterian Church, Mr. Weir declined to provide a great deal of detail, because he did not wish to risk the safety of remaining hostages. But he said that on the whole his captors treated him with respect. Food was adequate. He was in good physical shape, he said.
Asked whether he sympathized with the views of his captors, Mr. Weir replied that he did not identify with their demands or their point of view. But, he went on to say, he felt the US should reexamine its policy in the Middle East, especially with respect to Israel, and the effect of that policy on Lebanon and neighboring countries.
The Presbyterian minister was freed last Saturday, but his release was kept quiet until Wednesday so as not to jeopardize the possible release of other hostages.
Release of Mr. Weir has given hope to the families of the six other Americans. Meeting with Vice-President George Bush today, they are urging the news media to continue giving publicity to the plight of the hostages.
During the long period of their captivity, little attention has been focused on them. It was not until a Trans World Airlines jet was hijacked earlier this year, and 39 Americans taken captive and held in Beirut, that the fate of the ``forgotten seven'' (including the Rev. Mr. Weir) came to the fore.
Throughout the two-week Beirut crisis the US sought to include the seven in its diplomatic discussions with Lebanese Amal leader Nabih Berri and with the Syrians, saying that it would not settle for less than freedom for all the capitves. But in the end, President Reagan was forced to accept release of the 39 alone.
Syria is thought to be playing a role in the current diplomatic maneuvering, as it did during the Beirut crisis. At that time, it was widely perceived that a tacit agreement had been reached under which the American hostages would be freed. That was to be followed by Israel's release of more than 700 Lebanese Shiite and Palestinian prisoners it was holding.
Syrian President Hafez Assad reportedly became frustrated at the slow pace of the release and rebuffed Washington's urgings that he help secure release of the other American hostages. Israel, however, last week released the last of the Shiite prisoners from its Atlit prison, and this appears to have prepared the way for diplomatic movement on the other American hostages.
State Department officials, however, said that release of the Rev. Mr. Weir was not as clearly connected with Syria as was the case of the TWA hostages.