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Beirut hostage toll rises sharply. Spate of abductions traced to 1985 hijack, clandestine cell

By Jim MuirSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 26, 1987



Nicosia, Cyprus

The latest wave of kidnappings in Beirut, including the abduction of three more Americans, seems to be largely rooted in the June 1985 hijack of a TWA airliner. Since West Germany arrested a young Lebanese Shiite Muslim, Muhammad Ali Hamadi at Frankfurt Airport earlier this month, two West Germans, three Americans, and an Indian with US residency rights, have been kidnapped in Muslim-controlled west Beirut. There were also unconfirmed reports that two other European-looking men were abducted last week.

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Mr. Hamadi is accused of being one of three terrorists who hijacked the Trans World Airways (TWA) airliner to Beirut on June 14, 1985. Washington has requested his extradition from West Germany, to stand trial for air piracy and murder.

With the kidnapping of a French photographer and a Saudi diplomat a few days before Hamadi's arrest, the latest kidnaps add up to the most intensive series of abductions of foreigners Beirut has ever witnessed. They follow a three-month lull since the abduction of three Americans last fall.

The most spectacular of these snatches was carried out on Saturday, when four gunmen dressed in uniforms of the Lebanese paramilitary police and driving a police jeep, gained entry to the campus of the Beirut University College.

They told campus officials they had been sent to protect foreign faculty members, and asked for them to be assembled in a room. Once they checked the papers of those assembled, they drew pistols on the three Americans and the Indian, forced them into the jeep, and drove off.

Campus authorities named the three American professors as Alann Steen, Jesse Turner, and Robert Polhill. They said Indian-born professor, Mithileshwar Singh, had an American ``green card'' giving him the status of resident alien in the US.

On Sunday, the Christian ``Voice of Lebanon'' radio station said it had received an anonymous call claiming responsibility for the multiple abduction in the name of the ``Organization of the Oppressed on Earth.'' It broadcast a tape-recording of the phone call in which the unidentified spokesman warned the West German authorities not to hand Hamadi over to Washington in response to the US extradition request.

The caller also warned that the group would kill one of the hostages if the Bonn government did not meet its demand for Hamadi's immediate relase.

The same radio station said earlier it had received similar calls and threats from the same organization claiming responsibility for the abduction of two Germans it said it kidnapped last Friday. However, reports that two fair-haired foreigners were nabbed off west Beirut's main shopping street have not been independently confirmed.

The name of the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth first came to light in the early hours of the June '85 TWA hijack.

According to Beirut Radio and other Muslim-run radio station in west Beirut at the time, the hijackers themselves - allegedly including Hamadi - told Beirut Airport control tower that they were carrying out their actions on behalf of that organization.

Like all such clandestine cells, the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth is not believed to be a formal, card-carrying group. It is clearly made up of pro-Iranian fundamentalist Muslim radicals. In recent weeks, it has issued a number of statements saying it had ``executed'' several Lebanese Jews who were kidnapped in Beirut last year. Their captors had demanded a total Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon, and the release of Lebanese prisoners held by Israel and its allies in the south.

Regardless of the authenticity or otherwise of the claim made in the name of that organization, few observers doubt that the sudden spate of abductions involving West Germans and Americans was triggered by Hamadi's arrest with double aim of pressuring Bonn to release Hamadi and dissuading Washington from pursuing its extradition request.

In tracking down their kidnap victims, the hostage-takers showed that they enjoyed considerable resources of information and freedom of action.

One West German, Rudolf Cordes, is believed to have been abducted on the coastal highway on his way to a west Beirut hotel shortly after his arrival at Beirut Airport on Jan. 17. Another German, Alfred Schmidt, is reported to have been led out of the Summerland Hotel in his pajamas on the night of Jan. 20. The hotel is normally regarded as well-protected. The campus kidnappings were apparently executed in a similarly well-planned manner.

The kidnappers have also been helped by a further recent breakdown of law and order in west Beirut and an erosion of control by the larger militias, Lebanese sources say. The Syrian sponsored security plan is virtually nonexistent. And recent weeks have seen clashes not only between the main west Beirut militias, sources say, but even between rival wings within the one predominant Shiite Muslim militia, Amal.

The wave of abductions took place while British Anglican Church envoy, Terry Waite, had dropped out of sight in Lebanon on his latest mission seeking the release of some of the existing Western hostages. [The Church of England said in London on Sunday that Mr. Waite, who dropped out of sight in Beirut last Tuesday, was in ``good hands'' and continuing his secret negotiations.]

Since Waite's arrival in Beirut on Jan. 12, the list of foreign hostages has grown by at least eight, and possibly 10. Saturday's abductions brought the number of foreigners missing in Lebanon to 23 -- eight Americans, six Frenchmen, two Britons, two West Germans, one Irishman, one Italian, one South Korean, one Saudi Arabian and one Indian.