Algeria prepares for role as go-between when hostages are freed

Socialist Algeria, after long behind-the-scenes work to free the American hostages in Iran, hopes the United States will give it credit for this role. Algerian officials have stood ready to help with the movement of the 52 hostages, whenever they are freed by Iran. This is predicated on the possibility that the hostages would be flown first to Algiers, then transferred, presumably by a UA Air Force plane, to Frankfurt, West Germany for rest and a start of the "decompression" process before they return home to their families in the US.

By rpeserving strict neutrality in the Iraq-Iran war and conducting discreet, low-profile negotiations with various Iranian authorities in Tehran, both the Algerians and Swiss (who are officially protecting the US diplomatic interests in Iran) have worked tirelessly to transfer mail and messages for and from the hostages, and to keep contact at all levels with their captors.

Algerian President Chadli Benjedid entrusted the main burden of the liaison work in Washington to his able ambassador, Redha Malek. Mr. Malek is a veteran diplomat who won his revolutionary credentials as spokesman, editor, and information official in Tunis for the Algerian revolutionary provisional government-in-exile in Tunisia. That was during the 1954-62 war for Algerian independence from France.

President Benjedid's government has been trying to have Iranian financial assets, frozen in the United States, transferred to the Iranians through the intermediary of the Algerian central bank. The bank reportedly already administers some of the assets.

In spite of Algeria's past leadership role in third-world causes and its often strident objections to US policy, the sight of any US military aircraft or personnel who might arrive here to take charge of the hostages (in case they were exchanged here) would not be totally unfamiliar to Algerians.

Blue-uniformed US Navy officers ans fatigue-clad US Army personnel and their vehicles have become familiar sights since the Oct. 10 earthquake that largely destroyed algeria's western city of Al Asnam.

In contrast to Soviet relief aid and that of other socialist states that often have proclaimed themselves Algeria's allies, US aid (along with French, Belgian, West German, and other Western help) arrived promptly. Americans tents , food, heaters, blankets, water containers, and mobile teams of medical, engineering, and logistic specialists rushed to Al Asnam's assistance. US military teams are assessing what more can be done for the Al Asnam victims -- such a providing prefabricated housing.

US government aid for Al Asnam approached $5 million in value by the end of October. Algerian officials and ordinary people expressed warm gratitude. The US response contrasted favorably with the sluggish reaction of the East bloc.

However, Algerian television, radio, newspapers, and magazines have carried only sparse acknowledgement."If the hostage transfer does take place here and all goes well," said one concerned American official, "public opinion in both Algeria and the US may be a bit better prepared to admit that Algerian-US friendship has both form and subtance."

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