Shiite swamped with mail from US kids

The Shiite Muslim militia chief gazed in bemusement at a flood of letters from American high school students just delivered to him in this eastern Lebanese town. ``What can I do with 400 letters? I don't have time or money to answer them all,'' Hussein Musawi, head of the Baalbek-based fundamentalist Islamic Amal, said in mock despair. The letters, most with North Carolina postmarks, were written by students pleading for the the release of six Americans kidnapped in Lebanon.

Mr. Musawi denies he was behind the series of kidnaps that began 22 months ago. They were claimed by the radical Islamic Jihad (Holy War) movement, which also says it holds four French hostages. He asked Reuters to convey apologies to his youthful correspondents for not replying individually. He said he suspects United States intelligence of prompting the campaign.

``Take care, you never know what might be inside,'' the leader warned as he snatched away an unopened letter. ``I was very pleased to get letters from students because I am a teacher myself. I tell them . . . we have nothing to do with the kidnapping of the Americans or the French.''

One letter-writer told Musawi he planned to join the US Army after leaving school and suggested that the hostages be released safely ``before there is a war.'' Most argued for greater international understanding. Several students described their hobbies and asked for Lebanese pen pals -- but forgot to mention the hostages.

Baalbek's overworked postman delivered one letter marked ``his excellence the mayor,'' drawing a smile from Musawi.

Musawi urged the students to press Washington to revise its Mideast policy.

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