The release in Lebanon of American hostage David Jacobsen in highly secretive circumstances has raised hopes - and questions. Mr. Jacobsen, director of the American University Hospital in Beirut, had been held by the Islamic Jihad (``holy war'') group since May 1985. His freeing Sunday raised hopes that other American, French, and foreign hostages missing in Lebanon may soon be released.
The main questions observers in the region are asking about Jacobsen's release are: Why? Why now? And why in such a secretive manner? The answers seem very murky.
For more than 12 hours, Jacobsen's release remained unconfirmed by United States officials. The whereabouts of British mediator Terry Waite, who apparently played a key role in the release, also were unknown at press time. The delay and mystery prompted observers in the region to speculate that the operation had not been completed as planned, and that more hostages might still be on the way - or that they had been expected, and something had gone wrong. Some US news reports here, quoting White House and Pentagon sources, said Mr. Waite had informed US officials that two hostages would be freed, not just one.
Although US officials have consistently denied any willingness to bargain over the release of the US hostages, Islamic Jihad issued a statement Sunday indicating that Jacobsen's release was part of a bargaining process.
The statement said: ``We hold the US government fully responsible for failure to take advantage of this opportunity by continuing what it has begun, with overtures that could, if continued, lead to a solution of the hostage problem ... We will resort to an entirely different course if the [US] does not continue with these overtures.'' Islamic Jihad is believed still to hold at least two of six missing Americans. The statement gave no reason for Jacobsen's release.
Confirming Jacobsen's release, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said the US had not altered its policy of refusing to make concessions to gain the hostages' release. But Mr. Speakes refused to answer when asked if the US had been in direct contact with Islamic Jihad, Reuters reports.
Jacobsen's release was clearly connected with the revived go-between mission of Terry Waite, special envoy of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Waite visited Beirut briefly last Friday before flying to Cyprus on board a US military helicopter. Shortly after news of Jacobsen's release became public, Waite flew to the US ambassador's residence in east Beirut, where Jacobsen had reportedly been taken.
Waite revealed nothing of the negotiations that went into the release. His efforts on behalf of the American hostages kidnapped by Islamic Jihad early last year appeared to have run into the sand last December. The Kuwaiti government refused him an entry visa to discuss Islamic Jihad's demands for the release of 17 Muslim extremists jailed for 1984 bomb attacks on US and French targets in Kuwait. The Reagan administration also made it clear it was not willing to negotiate on that demand, nor to press Kuwait to accept it.
Whether any of those positions have changed is unclear. Nabih Berri, the leader of Lebanon's Shiite Muslim Amal movement, was quoted by French television last week as saying that negotiations between Washington and Kuwait were indeed under way, but might take some time.
One puzzle is the manner of Jacobsen's release. According to eyewitness reports, he was dropped off by his captors near the disused US Embassy building in Muslim west Beirut. Druze guards at the building reportedly contacted US officials in Christian east Beirut, who organized a convoy of vehicles to transfer Jacobsen to the Christian sector.
Another puzzle is the role of Syria - Lebanon's main power broker - in the whole affair. When rumors began to mount about an imminent hostage release, many observers believed it would happen under Syrian auspices and that the hostage would leave through Damascus. Syria, the observers felt, would want to take maximum credit, given the fact that it is currently the butt of forceful accusations of supporting terrorism.
However, reports from Damascus said Syria was not involved in Jacobsen's release, though it had been informed of progress in the negotiations. Indeed, the signs were that the affair had aroused a degree of Syrian pique.
If Syria has adopted a sour-grapes attitude to the affair, this would raise further questions. Islamic Jihad is known to take its cues from Iran, whose foreign minister held talks with Syrian President Hafez Assad in Damascus Saturday. Observers were puzzled that the pro-Iranian group, perhaps ``dickering'' with the US through Waite, should release a hostage in a manner likely to irritate the Syrians, who regard Lebanon as their own backyard.