A Swiss national who headed the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) mission in Sidon yesterday became the first Westerner to be kidnapped in Lebanon in nearly six months. Peter Winkler was abducted in the Lebanese port city near the sprawling Palestinian refugee camp of Ain Hilweh on the city's southern outskirts. His clearly marked Red Cross vehicle was intercepted by three unidentified armed men in a green BMW. The gunmen forced Mr. Winkler into their vehicle and sped off.
No group immediately claimed responsibility. Late in the day, it was still not clear whether the abduction was a local affair which might be resolved swiftly, or a serious, politically motivated hostage-taking which might lengthen the list of 15 or so Westerners still being held captive in Lebanon.
Winkler was one of six Swiss officials stationed by the ICRC in Sidon. Swiss Embassy officials have been worried for some time that their citizens in Lebanon might be at risk because of the detention in Switzerland of a young Lebanese Shiite radical, Hussein Ali Muhammad Hariri. He is charged with the hijacking of an Air Afrique airliner last year, and the murder of one of the French passengers on board.
Red Cross officials began immediately to contact local Lebanese and Palestinian leaders to try to ascertain Winkler's whereabouts and to secure his release.
[In Geneva, spokesman Joerg Bischof said Red Cross delegates have been abducted before in the region, but all were released a few hours later, the Associated Press reported. ``Let's hope this again will be the case this time,'' he said.]
Meetings were also held between officials of the Lebanese Muslim Nasserite militia, which largely controls Sidon, and Palestinian guerrilla leaders from the nearby camps.
Last March, radical Palestinians from the extremist Abu Nidal Organization abducted a British aid worker, Peter Coleridge, in Ain Hilweh and held him for five days.
He and a Lebanese colleague were released after other Palestinian and Lebanese groups, fearful that international aid workers would be frightened out of the country, had exerted heavy pressures on the kidnappers.
The same happened with two Scandinavian relief officials abducted in the Sidon area in February. They were held for three weeks, apparently by Palestinians bearing an individual grudge, before being freed, again under pressure from Lebanese and Palestinian factions.
But a Belgian doctor working in the far south of the country, Jan Cools, has not been seen or heard of since May, when he set off from Tyre on a trip to Beirut.
Many of the kidnappings of Westerners in Lebanon have been carried out by Iranian-inspired radical Muslim factions trying to secure the release of their militants held in foreign jails.
The Islamic Jihad, which pioneered Western hostage-taking, demanded the release of 17 of its adherents imprisoned for bomb offenses in Kuwait. It is still holding two of the nine missing Americans, Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland.
Despite the Swiss Embassy's anxiety, the International Red Cross kept more than 30 Swiss nationals on active duty in Lebanon, almost all of them in Muslim-dominated areas such as west Beirut and the south of the country where abductions have taken place.