Hostage Release Plan Seen to Be on Track

THE Tuesday release of Briton Jack Mann by pro-Iranian kidnappers in Lebanon indicates that a United Nations-brokered deal to free all captives in the Middle East is working, according to diplomats and regional analysts.Analysts also believe that some parties involved in the hostage deal see a link between its successful conclusion and the search for peace in the Middle East. British officials say they were told by UN mediators to expect Mr. Mann, a 77-year-old former pilot, to be freed at the beginning of last week. A medical team was put on standby in Cyprus. But before the end of the week the Shiite Muslim kidnappers, calling themselves the Revolutionary Justice Organization, had dashed hopes of Mann's early release by imposing new demands, specifically that Israel release another 20 Arab prisoners. During the next two days, diplomats in Lebanon say, pressure was brought to bear on the kidnappers by Iran.

Iranian role "It appears that the Iranians had given their word to UN mediators that groups under their influence in Lebanon would free hostages according to an agreed timetable," one diplomat comments. "They were not going to let one group wreck the deal." The successful intervention by Iran means that the UN-mediated release process has passed its first serious test. Also, an Arab diplomat from the Gulf says, it underlines the determination of Tehran to see all Western hostages in Lebanon set free. "By January," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Mohammed Besharati predicted before Mann's release, "all hostages, irrespective of their nationalities, will be able to go home." The Tehran Times newspaper, which often reflects the thinking of Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, said an American hostage would be set free before this weekend. Yesterday Reuters quoted an anonymous Muslim fundamentalist source saying that American Joseph Cicippio would be released Sunday if Israel releases Arab prisoners.

Israeli captives But potential problems lie ahead in the complex nature of the release package, diplomats in Lebanon say. "It's not just a question of a straight swap - hostages for Arab prisoners in Israel. There's the additional element of the missing Israeli servicemen." Even as Western governments were cautiously optimistic about an end to the hostage problem, an Israeli Defense Ministry spokesman accused Iran of reneging on a promise to provide information on missing Israeli serviceman Yossi Fink. "Most regrettably, Iran to this day has not lived up fully to its commitment," the spokesman said. Diplomats in Beirut believe the return of missing Israeli servicemen, or the provision of firm evidence about their fate, is the issue most likely to slow down the release process. But British officials say public statements of blame and recrimination, made by the various parties involved in the exchange deal, should not be taken at face value. "The process may be erratic, but no party involved wants it to fail," a British official said. For Iran, success would increase its respectability in the eyes of the international community. President Rafsanjani also would score an important victory over his radical critics, both in Iran and in Lebanon. For Israel and Syria, there are added incentives for seeing the hostage problem resolved, Middle East analysts say. These are related to the United States plan to open a regional peace conference next month.

No land for peace Israeli cooperation in a hostage deal is meant to deflect some pressure from Washington to push Israelis to exchange occupied Arab land for peace, analysts say. The Syrians are also keen to be seen playing a joint role with Iran in securing the release of Westerners in Lebanon. The Damascus government wants to erase its image as a sponsor of terrorism and enhance its claim at the negotiating table for the return of Arab land occupied by Israel.

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