Kidnappers concede little. Singh probably `least valuable' to hostage-holders who promised Damascus to release a US citizen

Once again, the Beirut kidnappers have shown that they will always give up the card they regard as least valuable when pressed to release a hostage. The freeing of Indian hostage Mithileshwar Singh on Monday was clearly a source of relief for his wife, Lalmani.

She had been waiting patiently for him on the campus of the Beirut University College (BUC) for the past 20 months, wondering why he had been taken captive in the first place. Although an Indian national, he held a US residence permit.

But Syrian and United States officials were clearly expecting the release of one of Mr. Singh's three US fellow-professors. The four men were kidnapped together off the BUC campus in January 1987.

Instead, senior Syrian officers found themselves escorting a hostage whom, Beirut observers say, the kidnappers undoubtedly regarded as of marginal value.

For the Syrians, it was something of an embarrassment. It was on their say-so that US officials believed a US citizen was to be released. The Syrian foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara, announced it in advance at the United Nations.

Several hours after Singh was released and taken in hand by the Syrians, Damascus Radio was still reporting that a US hostage had been freed and would be handed over to US officials. The Syrians themselves had clearly been misinformed.

All this raised questions about whether Syria or Iran played the major role in bringing about Singh's release.

The Iranians have kept well in the background and have not tried to claim credit for the release. Reticence could, however, be explained by the delicate political situation in Tehran.

Analysts of the hostage situation do not rule out the possibility that Iran, reacting to Washington's sanctions against Iraq, may have been disposed to offer an oblique reward and encouragement.

But a number of Beirut sources link this particular release more to Syrian initiatives than to Iranian, though they believe that cooperation between the two may have been necessary.

The spate of five statements from the kidnap group heralding the release began three weeks ago, at a time when Lebanon was plunged into a political crisis over its presidential election.

US diplomats became deeply involved in trying to resolve the crisis, mediating between Damascus and the alienated, hard-line Christian leaders in East Beirut.

When the flood of statements from the kidnappers of the BUC professors suddenly began after a silence of many months, many Beirut sources drew a clear connection. They believed the Syrians inspired the hints of a hostage release to encourage the US to cooperate with Damascus over the crisis in Lebanon.

This view is based on the belief of some Shiite sources that the Syrians were given a say in the release of the BUC hostages as part of the understanding with Iran which allowed Syrian troops to deploy in Beirut's southern suburbs in May. At that time, the suburbs were controlled by the Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah radicals.

But even if this theory is correct, the Syrians still did not get what they expected - a US hostage.

Singh's release may have bolstered hopes that the whole hostage question may be gradually moving toward a resolution, especially as Iran seeks to mend its fences with the outside world.

But it also underscores once again the painfully slow nature of the process, and the delays, disappointments, and sheer hard work involved in each release.

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