THE appearance here yesterday of two German aid workers, held captive for the past three years, marked a final closing of the Western hostage saga and a possible turning point for Lebanon, whose officials took a prominent role in the now-familiar rituals of release.
The two men, Heinrich Struebig and Thomas Kemptner, were freed by their kidnappers in the early morning. They were taken by Lebanese security officials to the Lebanese prime minister's office in West Beirut, where they were handed over to a German government minister, Bernd Schmidbauer.
Their release, expected Tuesday, had been delayed after last-minute hitches arose.
After being handed over to Mr. Schmidbauer, the two hostages appeared at a crowded press conference.
Dressed smartly in dark suits, white shirts, and neckties, they both looked pale and Mr. Kemptner appeared thin.
But they were relaxed and smiling, and appeared to have survived their three-year ordeal well. They remained silent throughout their appearance before the press, leaving the Lebanese prime minister and Schmidbauer to do the talking.
Before being taken to Beirut airport to begin their journey back to Germany, the two men were driven to the Lebanese presidential residence for a meeting with President Elias Hrawi, who posed with them for photographers.
It seems clear that the Lebanese government is being allowed for the first time to take the bulk of the credit for this final release of Western hostages.
The fact that the two Germans were freed in Beirut was unusual. All nine American and British hostages released last year were handed over to envoys from their countries in the Syrian capital Damascus, with the Syrians taking most of the credit.
"The handover in Beirut is very significant," said United Nations hostage negotiator Giandomenico Picco. "I am very happy for Lebanon."
Diplomats said the Syrians and others had agreed to give the hard-pressed Beirut government - which is strongly backed by Damascus - a much-needed fillip by letting it preside over the final hostage release.
But behind the scenes, as with all other hostage releases, the strings were being pulled by Iran and Syria. It was a visit to Beirut by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati that paved the way for the release.
Syrian security forces also played a major role on the ground, as Lebanese Prime Minister Rashid al-Solh acknowledged. Taking delivery of the hostages, Schmidbauer thanked Iran, Syria, and Lebanon for their help, as well as paying tribute to the UN and the efforts of Mr. Picco.
The two men, working for the German charity ASME-Humanitas, were kidnapped at Sidon in south Lebanon in 1989. They were excluded from the release of all other Western hostages last year because they were being held for a specific reason - to try to force the release of two radical Shiite brothers, Abbas Ali and Mohammed Ali Hamadei, serving long prison sentences in Germany for terrorist offenses.
IT took negotiators another six months to persuade the kidnappers, believed to be headed by Abdul-Hadi Hamadei, a third brother, who is the security chief of the pro-Iranian Hizbullah group, to release the two Germans without securing freedom for the jailed Hamadeis.
The practice of kidnapping has cost Lebanon dearly. It helped to drive out a large, expatriate community and hasten an economic collapse that has now reached dramatic proportions, triggering riots that brought down the Beirut government last month.
The new Lebanese government hopes that the release of the last Western hostages will bring a turning point in its fortunes.
"We hope this release, which delights us all, will open a new page of cooperation with Germany to the benefit of Lebanon and both countries," said Prime Minister Solh as he handed over the two hostages.
Lebanon also hopes and believes that the release will lead immediately to the unblocking of $120 million in European Community aid, frozen at Germany's request because its hostages remained captive.
But Lebanese economists warn against hopes for a quick fix from outside for the country's war-shattered economy.
"The Lebanese economy needs deep, radical restructuring," says Yusif Khalil, a senior official at the Bank of Lebanon.