The Red Cross and the hostages

The Red Cross seemingly softened its usual conditions for visiting prisoners in an April 14 bid finally to see all 50 US Embassy hostages -- especially seven so far absent from the militant captors' film extravaganzas.

At this writing, a delegation including three Iranians, a Swiss doctor, and the Tehran representative of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) still was inside the captive American compound.

Thus, it could not yet be confirmed that the student captors had met the main nonnegotiable ICRC condition for the visit -- that all that hostages, held now for 163 days, be made available.

No foreign observer has yet seen all the captive Americans, despite persistent efforts by United States officials and numerous diplomats to arrange such a visit.

It was with this in mind that the ICRS apparently settled for a controversial rollback on an important traditional condition for meetings with prisoners: that such sessions be private and individual.

A spokesman for the student militants said the Iranian members of the delegation -- the government health minister, Tehran's main Muslim preacher, and an official of the local Red Cross affiliate -- were also sitting in on the interviews.

It was not immediately clear whether any of the militants also was present.

ICRC officials would not immediately confirm that the interviews were not private. But when asked before the visit if the militants had accepted all the usual Red Cross conditions, a senior ICRC officials said, "I'm sure you understand that under the circumstances some of the conditions may have to be flexible."

Diplomats here disagree on whether it made sense to dilute normal ICRC demands. Some of the envoys argued that the main goal should be simply to check that all the captives were safe and sound.

Although American ministers have been allowed into the chained and guarded embassy for filmed Christmas and Easter ceremonies, the diplomats noted, seven of the 50 hostages there were not allowed to participate in either service.

These included several embassy officials publicly accused of "spying" by the militants.

The diplomats -- and, they said, Washington -- were especially concerned over the condition of political officer Michael Metrinko, the only hostage not seen at the religious services, by other foreign observers, or in the trickle of photographs leaked by the Iranians during the embassy ordeal.

If the ICRC delegate has, indeed, managed to see all the Americans, said on European diplomat, "I feel we have reached at least something of a turning point. We are nowhere near getting the hostages released, but in the meantime, half a loaf [visits not conforming to usual ICRC guidelines] is much better than none."

And if the Red Cross man did not see everyone, virtually all diplomats agreed , Washington's Western allies would be under mounting pressure to bow to the American desire for tougher measures against the Iranian government.

The eight member states of the European Community with embassies in Tehran already have recalled their top diplomats for consultations on Iran's April 12 refusal to provide a firm date for release of the embassy captives.

Meanwhile, at least some remaining Tehran diplomats questioned whether the ICRC should ease its past conditions, even to see all of the captives. One such diplomat, while stressing that it was obviously crucial to visit all the hostages, explained:

"We have been trying to get the Iranians to realize the gravity of this crisis for more than five months. If indeed what we have ended up with is hostage visits that are not confidential and private, then I say that is not enough.

"We should stop deluding ourselves and stop allowing Iran to delude us."

Those advocating a visit to all the hostages, whatever the conditions, noted that the ICRC guidelines applied to prisoners of war, and that the captive Americans did not really fall into this category.

They also argued -- with five frustrating months of diplomatic effort as evidence -- that the students were virtually sure to reject private meetings with all the hostages, no matter how much pressure might be exerted.

"The main thing, particularly for the hostages' families and the American public, is to see that all the hostages are at least as well as can be expected, " one European envoy said.

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