The freeing of four foreign hostages within three months has focused attention on the plight and prospects for freedom of at least 17 other foreigners still captive in Lebanon. The releases have lent some credence to recent reports that the kidnappers, their political demands frustrated, may now be willing to settle for cash ransoms. Some news reports in Beirut even speak of a ``hostage bazaar,'' with captives being auctioned off at the highest possible price.
While this may be valid in some cases, analysts of hostage affairs caution that there has been no sign of flexibility from ``hard core,'' politically-motivated kidnap groups - especially the Islamic Jihad, which has been holding Americans and Frenchmen captive for more than two years.
On Friday, two Frenchmen - TV crewman Jean-Louis Normandin and press photographer Roger Auque - were freed. West German medical company executive, Alfred Schmidt, was released on Sept. 7 after nearly eight months in captivity. On Oct. 26, South Korean diplomat Do Chae Sung was allowed to go free nearly two years after his abduction.
Despite official denials, reports persist in the region that ransoms of over $1 million each were paid for the release of Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Do.
But ransom rumors have been less tenacious in the case of the two French hostages. The French government was involved in intensive behind-the-scenes contacts on the hostage issue with both Iran and Syria.
It would embarrass Paris if it were to emerge that money was involved. But political and diplomatic considerations appear to have played a role. Welcoming Mr. Auque and Mr. Normandin in Paris Saturday, French Premier Jacques Chirac said their release indicated progress toward a resumption of relations between France and Iran. (The nations broke ties in July, after Iran's Paris Embassy refused to hand over an official for questioning in connection with terrorist bombings.) But Mr. Chirac added relations could not be restored as long as Iranian-influenced groups held French hostages, especially in Lebanon.
The group which freed Auque and Normandin, the Revolutionary Justice Organization, has released seven French hostages since June 1986 and has no French captives left. The releases all apparently marked upward turns in the relationship between Paris and Tehran.
But the Islamic Jihad, also pro-Iranian, has shown no such flexibility with the four French hostages it abducted in early 1985. None of them has ever been released. In March 1986, the group announced it had ``executed'' one of them, researcher Michel Seurat, although some sources believe he in fact died in captivity.
Islamic Jihad has never publicly spelled out terms for freeing the remaining French captives, but has appeared to link their fate to French policy in the region.
The same group (or an allied cell using the name) has also held American hostages Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland since March and June 1985. Before news of the US-Iran arms scandal broke last November, Islamic Jihad released three other American hostages. It is now clear that those releases coincided with secret deliveries of US arms to Tehran - although some sources say ransom money was also paid to the kidnappers.
The continuing reverberations of ``Irangate,'' and the US-Iranian standoff in the Gulf, seem to have reduced the chances of more releases by Islamic Jihad. The fate of British Anglican envoy Terry Waite, who disappeared in January while trying to talk with the Islamic Jihad, also seems bound up in this complex web.
Influential pro-Iranian Lebanese Shiite cleric, Sayyid Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, last week repeated his view that there will be no movement on the hostage issue until after 1988 US and French presidential elections: ``This issue has now passed out of the hands of the Lebanese, and they cannot resolve it. It has become governed by bilateral and international relations ... That is why I see no chance of settling the matter outside the context of the US and French elections.''
Some speculation about possible ransom bargaining has focused on three American professors seized on the Beirut University College campus in January. The real affiliations of their captors, the self-styled Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, are not clear. The group originally demanded the release of 400 Arab prisoners held by Israel, but has not pressed this demand.
The most likely candidate for bought release has been named in several Beirut news reports as remaining West German hostage, Rudolf Cordes. Like released hostage Schmidt, Mr. Cordes was abducted in January with the apparent aim of freeing a Lebanese Shiite militant, Muhammad Ali Hamadei, arrested in Frankfurt on charges of involvement in the 1985 hijack of a TWA airliner. Bonn, which has cordial relations with Tehran, declined an American extradition request for Mr. Hamadei.
If Cordes joins Schmidt in freedom, it will clearly be a victory for high politics - and perhaps money - over the original motivations of the kidnappers.
The cases of other hostages might conceivably be open to ransom bargaining, given Lebanon's acute economic crisis. But in none of those cases have there been any public demand from the kidnappers.
Those who remain missing in Lebanon AMERICAN
Terry Anderson. Journalist, kidnapped March 16, 1985.
Thomas Sutherland. Professor, seized June 9, 1985.
Frank Reed. Educator, seized Sept. 9, 1986.
Joseph Cicippio. University employee, held since Sept. 12, 1986.
Edward Tracy. Writer, abducted Oct. 21, 1986.
Jesse Turner, Robert Polhill, Alann Steen. Professors, seized Jan. 24, 1987. FRENCH
Marcel Fontaine, Marcel Carton. French Embassy officials seized March 22, 1985.
Jean-Paul Kauffmann. Journalist, abducted May 22, 1985. OTHERS
John McCarthy. British cameraman, abducted April 17, 1986.
Terry Waite. Anglican envoy, missing since Jan. 1987.
Rudolf Cordes. West German businessman, seized Jan. 17, 1987.
Mithileshwar Singh. Indian professor, kidnapped Jan. 24, 1987.
Brian Keenan. Irish professor, missing since April 11, 1986.
Alberto Molinari. Italian businessman, seized Sept. 11, 1985.