The abduction of another American citizen by Muslim fundamentalists in west Beirut is being seen as a major challenge to the new security plan recently applied in the city's Muslim quarters -- and to its Syrian sponsors. Frank Reed, an elementary school director, was pulled from his vehicle Monday in the southern outskirts of town by a group of gunmen, police and local radio reports said. He was forced into a car and driven off.
A man claiming to speak for the Islamic Jihad (Holy War), a pro-Iranian group, later called a news agency office in Beirut, claiming responsibility. Islamic Jihad is already holding at least three other Americans, abducted more than a year ago, as well as several French hostages.
The authenticity of the claim was apparently established by the fact that the caller knew two key facts about Mr. Reed: that he is married to a Syrian woman, Sahmaya Dalati, and that he has converted to Islam. But the spokesman said that this, and Reed's teaching activities, were just a cover for his operations as a US intelligence agent. The caller said that documents proving this had been found on Reed and that a photograph of him would be distributed soon.
In early July, the new west Beirut security plan led to a return to normalcy in areas previously ruled by warring militias. The addition of several hundred elite Syrian commandos in support of the plan a week later was followed by calls from Syrian officials and their local supporters urging Western citizens and embassies to return to west Beirut, since kidnappings and other attacks on foreigners were now a thing of the past.
Reed's abduction is the first involving a Westerner since the security plan was applied, and observers believe it would inevitably shake confidence in the scheme and its Syrian supporters.
Syrian leaders have frequently said they are working for the release of American, French, and other Western hostages in Lebanon. Hopes were raised when one of the four American hostages being held by Islamic Jihad, the Rev. Lawrence Jenco, was freed in late July. Now, it seems, the pro-Iranian kidnappers have found a replacement.
Despite his local roots, friends say, Reed had spent most of the last year outside the country, fearing he might be a kidnapping target. Reed was director of the Lebanese International School, which he had founded with Lebanese associates.
The holding of hostages is not the only issue in Lebanon over which the supporters of Syria and Iran disagree at the moment. Only hours before the news of the latest kidnapping, the Iranian charg'e d'affaires called at the Lebanese Foreign Ministry for talks. He later repeated Iran's categorical rejection of UN Security Council resolution 425, which provides the mandate for UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon.
UNIFIL's future has been cast in doubt by recent attacks on the force -- especially on its French contingent -- attributed to radical, Iranian-inspired Islamic militants. The mainstream Shiite Muslim movement, Amal, supports UNIFIL and wants it to stay. Amal argues -- as do many southern Lebanese villagers -- that UNIFIL provides a measure of protection for the Shiite villagers from Israel and its local militia allies in the south.
But the radical groups, openly encouraged by Iran, reject UNIFIL's presence, accusing it of providing a shield for Israel. Marrack Goulding, the UN assistant secretary-general, Tuesday continued urgent consultations in the area on the force's future.
Observers believe UNIFIL's presence could become untenable if the attacks continue. On Sept. 4, three French soldiers were killed when a remote-control bomb went off near the exercise track where they were jogging in a Shiite village east of Tyre.
Amal has strongly condemned and tried to prevent such attacks attributed to pro-Iranian extremists. Its followers are also reported to have clashed in the southern suburbs of Beirut this week with followers of the Iranian-inspired Hizbullah (Party of God).
Efforts to secure the release of Islamic Jihad's existing three hostages apparently have gone nowhere. The kidnappers are reported to be demanding freedom for a group of Islamic extremists jailed in Kuwait for the December 1983 bomb attacks on the US Embassy and other targets there. Both Washington and Kuwait itself refuse to bargain on that demand.
The three hostages held by Islamic Jihad are: Terence Anderson, David Jacobsen, and Thomas Sutherland. The group said last September that it had executed a fourth American, diplomat William Buckley. This has not been verified.