WASHINGTON (Jul. 31)
President Bush cut short a two-day speaking trip Monday to return to the White House for consultations with national security advisers on a U.S. response to the reported murder of an American Marine by a pro-Iranian terrorist group holding him hostage in southern Lebanon.
“Whether the report is true or not, I know I speak for all here when I try to express to the American people the sense of outrage that we all feel about this kind of brutality, this uncalled for terrorism,” Bush said in a speech to the National Governors Association in Chicago.
Although the president canceled his next stop, Las Vegas, to return to Washington, the Bush administration was cautious on whether it believed the claim made Monday by a group called the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, that it had hanged Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins.
But privately, State Department officials said there was good reason to believe that the hanging body depicted in a videotape sent to a news agency in Beirut was indeed that of the 44-year-old Higgins, who headed the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization in Lebanon before he was kidnapped in February 1988.
The Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, believed to be a front group for the Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah, or Party of God, had announced Sunday that it would hang Higgins if Israel did not release its leader, Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid.
According to reports from Beirut, the group threatened Monday evening to hang additional American hostages if Obeid is not released from Israeli custody.
DOLE CRITICIZES ISRAEL
Israeli commandos seized Obeid and two associates early Friday at his home in southern Lebanon and took them to Israel to be interrogated about Obeid’s leadership of terrorist activities against Israel.
Asked to comment on the situation Monday, State Department deputy spokesman Richard Boucher would only repeat Secretary of State James Baker’s statement the day before in Paris, that the threat to kill Higgins was “outrageous and uncivilized.”
He also reiterated the U.S. position that it holds “those responsible for taking hostages wholly responsible for their safety.”
Boucher would not comment on whether the United States believes Israel was partially responsible for the alleged hanging by virtue of the fact that it had abducted Obeid.
But Bush indirectly criticized Israel, although not by name, at a news conference Friday. “I don’t think that kidnapping and violence helps the cause of peace,” the president said.
On Capitol Hill, sentiment against the Hezbollah ran predictably strong Monday.
U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) urged that Obeid be extradited from Israel to the United States, to be prosecuted for his personal involvement in the kidnapping of Higgins last year. His suggestion was praised by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
But Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.) said on the Senate floor that Israel’s abduction of Obeid was irresponsible.
“When it endangers the lives of Americans in some foreign country, perhaps a little more restraint on the part of the Israelis one of these days would be refreshing,” he was quoted as saying.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, criticized Dole’s statement Monday afternoon.
“We are shocked at Sen. Robert Dole’s outburst against Israel this morning,” Foxman said. “He failed to place the blame where it truly belongs: with Iran and the Hezbollah terrorists.”