'Positive trend' toward freeing hostages developing, Iranian official says Missing Israelis key in diplomacy


TEHRAN, Iran -- After meetings with fundamentalist leaders ++ from Lebanon who are believed to have influence over kidnappers there, Iran's foreign minister said yesterday that "a positive trend has evolved" toward freeing Western hostages and other prisoners in the Middle East.

The foreign minister, Ali Akbar Velayati, spoke after leaders of thepro-Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God) met here for the second day with senior Iranian officials.

Also in Tehran was a senior Swiss official, Deputy Foreign Minister Klaus Jacobi, who was dispatched over the weekend by the United Nations secretary-general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, Reuters reported from Geneva.

The intensified diplomacy is believed to center on ways of addressing Israel's demand for information about its seven servicemen missing in Lebanon.

Diplomats said they believed that if Israel's demand was met, it would be possible to arrange a wide release of prisoners including the 10 Western hostages seized in Lebanon, among them five Americans, hundreds of Arabs held by Israel and survivors among the missing Israeli servicemen.

Iran is seeking to broaden economic and political ties with the West and is taking the lead in diplomacy to free the hostages.

In Kennebunkport, Maine, President Bush declined yesterday to discuss what role Iran is playing in the recent efforts to free the Western hostages, but he said it "would be constructive" if Tehran worked for their freedom.

Pressed for comment on Iran's involvement, Mr. Bush said: "I can't confirm that, but certainly that would be constructive."

Mr. Velayati, whose remarks were carried by the Tehran radio yesterday, emphasized the importance of the "intermediary role" played by the United Nations in the hostage diplomacy and said he hoped that Mr. Perez de Cuellar would obtain "acceptable" results.

He added that "Israel should be brought under pressure to release the Lebanese and Palestinians it holds as hostages."

A senior Muslim fundamentalist leader said in Beirut that the delegation to Tehran included the Hezbollah chief, Sheik Abbas Musawi, and the head of its security section, Abdul Hadi Hammadi.

Mr. Hammadi is also one of the leaders of Islamic Holy War, the best-known of the Lebanese kidnapping groups, and the brother of two convicted terrorists in Germany whose imprisonment is proving to be a complication in the negotiations.

Mr. Hammadi is believed to be behind Islamic Holy War's demand that the Hammadi brothers go free as part of any hostage deal.

The two brothers, Mohammad Ali Hammadi and Abbas Hammadi, were convicted in Germany on charges including hijacking, kidnapping and murder.

The Islamic figure in Beirut, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Iran had arranged a "gentleman's agreement" under which Islamic Holy War would free two German hostages, Heinrich Strubig and Thomas Kemptner, as part of a wider prisoner exchange in return for Bonn's implicit commitment to parole the Hammadi brothers some months later.

In Bonn, a German Foreign Ministry spokesman refused to comment on the Beirut figure's remarks, Reuters reported.

Iranian analysts predicted that Abdel Karim Obeid, a radical Shiite spiritual leader, would remain "the main bargaining chip," to be played last. Sheik Obeid was kidnapped by Israel in 1989, evidently so it could gain just such bargaining leverage.

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