JERUSALEM -- The long Middle East hostage saga moved into a possibly climactic phase today as Lebanese kidnappers said that they would free an American this morning, hours after Israel released 25 of the Arab prisoners it has been holding in southern Lebanon.
A statement released in Beirut early today said that Joseph J. Cicippio would be released from five years of captivity.
A Syrian official told Reuters in Damascus that the other two U.S. hostages in Lebanon, Terry A. Anderson and Alann Steen, were expected to be set free by Sunday.
In an earlier statement issued in Beirut yesterday morning, the pro-Iranian group holding Mr. Cicippio said that "detailed programs had been laid down and comprehensive agreements have been reached" to end at last an enduring drama involving the Western hostages, Arab prisoners in Israeli hands and Israeli servicemen missing in Lebanon for as long as nine years.
Later yesterday, Israel announced the release of 25 of some 300 Arab prisoners held at a prison camp guarded by Israel's surrogate militia in the strip of southern Lebanon that Israel calls its "security zone."
The Israeli action was unexpected. Israel had previously insisted that it would not free any more of its captives until it received word about the fate of four Israeli servicemen still unaccounted for in Lebanon, most of all an air force navigator who was shot down in 1986 and is the only one believed to be alive.
But the Israeli Defense Ministry said that the United Nations secretary-general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, had asked for "a special gesture" to help him bring about a comprehensive exchange of captives before his term expires at the end of this month.
"This was a request that we could not and would not refuse," said Uri Lubrani, the government's chief hostage negotiator.
Even though Israel has given up something for nothing, Mr. Lubrani said that he was confident that his side would soon get the information it is seeking.
Asked in an interview if that included freedom for the missing navigator, Capt. Ron Arad, he said that he could not go into detail because the situation was "dicey."
In the last few weeks, there has been a sudden rush to release Westerners by pro-Iranian groups that clearly have decided that hostage-taking is no longer a productive enterprise.
After the talks in Damascus, Mr. Perez de Cuellar's main hostage negotiator, Giandomenico Picco, released a statement in Mr. Perez de Cuellar's name announcing that "important progress has been made on the road to a solution of the issue of the Western hostages in Lebanon."
The statement also said that "a basic understanding has also been reached on a comprehensive approach to the remaining humanitarian issues, including that of the Lebanese detained without due process of law and that of the Israelis missing and dead in Lebanon."
The United Nations statement did not go into specifics. Neither did Mr. Lubrani, who described the deal as "a mesh of things, part subterranean, part overt."
But he warned that "time is of the greatest essence," saying that Israel felt it was working against a Dec. 31 deadline, the end of Mr. Perez de Cuellar's term as secretary-general. After that, Mr. Lubrani said, it might take a while to regain the present momentum.
When the Church of England envoy, Terry Waite, and a U.S. hostage, Thomas Sutherland, were released two weeks ago, they reported that they had been told by their captors
that freedom for the remaining Westerners would not be long in coming.
That promise moved closer to reality yesterday when the group holding Mr. Cicippio, the Revolutionary Justice Organization, sent a statement to a news agency in Beirut saying that he would be freed within 48 hours "to fulfill our side of the deal."
Along with the message it sent an old photograph of a bearded and gaunt Mr. Cicippio, 61. He was acting comptroller at the American University of Beirut when he was seized on Sept. 12, 1986.
The Revolutionary Justice Organization said that as a result of negotiations, "positive results and a comprehensive solution have been reached to close this file once and for all in a manner that will accomplish the interests and demands of all sides."
In a further communique released early this morning, the Revolutionary Justice Organization said that the release would take place later in the day at a Beirut hotel.
During the latest negotiations, the group said, it had received a videotape showing prison conditions for Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, a Shiite Muslim clergyman kidnapped by Israeli soldiers two years ago from his home in southern Lebanon.
Israeli officials have said that Sheik Obeid would be among the last of their Arab prisoners to be released.
But the statement by Mr. Cicippio's kidnappers said that "relief is coming soon" for the Arabs in Israeli hands, and singled out Sheik Obeid by name.