Germany's Economic Clout Is Seen As Factor Behind Hostage Release

GERMAN government officials insist they have made "no deal" to win the release of Heinrich Struebig and Thomas Kemptner, the last of the Western hostages in Lebanon to be freed. Syria's official news agency said the two Germans were released June 16 to a joint Lebanese-Syrian committee after being freed by their Shiite Muslim captors, according to an Associated Press report at press time.

Despite the German protestations, this country's economic importance seems to have played a role in the release.

In a radio interview June 16, Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel named Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and the United Nations as helpful negotiators in the three-year ordeal, but identified Iran as playing the key role because of its influence over the Shiite Hizbullah group. (Hizbullah is closely connected to the Germans' reputed captors, the Hamadei family.) Germany is Iran's biggest trading partner. "Tehran is interested in further improvement in relations with the Federal Republic [of Germany]," Mr. Kinkel said.

Bonn also used its economic influence in March to block a $120 million European Community aid package for Lebanon until the hostage situation was resolved. The Lebanese govern- ment has been pushing for the release of the Germans in an effort to win more Western aid and investment.

Economics, however, was not on the minds of the hostages' abductors.

Since the kidnapping of the two German relief workers on May 16, 1989, the Hamadei family has sought the release of two Hamadei brothers imprisoned in Germany. Mohammad Ali Hama-dei is serving a life sentence for hijacking a TWA airliner and killing a United States passenger in 1985. Abbas Ali Hamadei was sentenced to 13 years for kidnapping two German businessmen in 1987.

The Germans repeatedly ruled out an exchange of hostages for prisoners. But in his radio interview yesterday, Kinkel said that a "lightening" of the terms of imprisonment could be considered, although this would be up to the legal authorities.

According to a Beirut newspaper, As-Safir, the Germans have agreed to put the brothers in the same prison and allow regular family visits. German officials have also reportedly said they will not seek to prosecute the kidnappers of Mr. Struebig and Mr. Kemptner, though officials in Bonn deny all of these reports.

"It's just my personal opinion, but I can imagine Germany's president giving [the Hamadei brothers] a reprieve in three or four years," says Helmut Hubel, Middle East specialist at the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn.

ACCORDING to Reuters, the kidnappers announced the impending release in a June 15 communique. It was accompanied by a color photograph of the two Germans smiling and wearing dark suits and ties.

But the kidnappers' message also included a warning. "As we release the last spies and positively close this chapter, we warn against a repetition of past experiences.... We renew our vow that we shall not rest until freedom is returned to our brothers [in prison in Germany] and this will be the last chance," the communique said.

The release of the two Germans marks the end of a long chapter involving kidnappings of Westerners by Shiite Muslim militants, who abducted at least 92 foreigners between 1984 and 1991.

After a spate of releases of American and British hostages late last year, only the two Germans were still being held. Struebig and Kemptner were kidnapped in southern Lebanon on May 16, 1989, while working for a humanitarian relief group at Palestinian refugee camps.

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