U.s.says It’s Not Asking Israel to Free Fundamentalist Cleric

The United States is not asking Israel to release Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, despite a threat by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists to kill a second American hostage, the State Department said Wednesday.

“We do not deal over hostages,” department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler stated emphatically.

“The terrorists are demanding that this gentleman (Obeid) be released, and that would fall in the area of the United States participating in a deal with terrorists,” Tutwiler explained.

She said U.S. policy has been to avoid making “concessions to terrorists holding official or private American citizens hostage. We hold those responsible for the taking of innocent hostages fully responsible for their safety.”

A group called the Revolutionary Justice Organization announced Tuesday that it would kill U.S. hostage Joseph Cicippio on Thursday, unless Israel released Obeid, a leader of the Shiite fundamentalist Hezbollah, or Party of God.

Obeid and two of his aides were seized at his home in southern Lebanon last Friday by Israeli commandos, who brought them to Israel for interrogation about involvement in terrorist activities.

The threat against Cicippio was made after another group, the Organization for the Oppressed on Earth, released a videotape Monday purporting to show U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins hanging from a rope.

“We cannot confirm that it was Col. Higgins in the video tape,” Tutwiler said. She said forensic specialists were trying to determine the identity of man shown in the tape, the time of death and the cause of death.

The United States also was trying to recover the body through the United Nations and the International Red Cross,she said.

NOT MEANT TO PRESSURE ISRAEL

Tutwiler’s statement seemed to negate the impression left by President Bush on Monday that the United States was pressuring Israel to release Obeid. In a statement issued late that night, Bush urged “all parties who hold hostages in the Middle East to release them forthwith.”

Administration officials this week denied that the statement was meant to put pressure on Israel. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater pointed out that the Bush statement reiterated U.S. opposition to negotiations with hostagetakers.

This ruled out U.S. support for Israel’s offer Monday to free Obeid and 150 Shiite prisoners in its custody, in return for the release of three Israeli soldiers held by Shiites in southern Lebanon and 16 American and other foreign hostages.

The United States took the same position in 1985, when terrorists who were holding hostages from a TWA plane they had hijacked demanded the release of Shiite prisoners in Israel. The United States refused to press Israel, but acquiesced when Israel released the prisoners, an action it claimed it had planned even before the hijacking.

Tutwiler also made a point Wednesday of praising a statement issued jointly Tuesday by Iranian President-elect Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. It expressed their regret over the killing of Higgins and condemned “all acts of a terrorist nature.”

Tutwiler said Rafsanjani should act upon this statement to help release all hostages held in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah and its various Shiite front groups were believed to be inspired and financed by the Iranian regime of Rafsanjani’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

MOVE TO EXTRADITE OBEID

“We remain convinced that Iran is in a unique position to bring significant influence to bear on those who hold the hostages, and (we) call upon it to do so,” Tutwiler said.

She said Iran should use this influence “to obtain the immediate, unconditional and safe release” of the hostages.

At the White House, Fitzwater said that Syria also has such influence, since it has a sizeable armed force in Lebanon.

On Capitol Hill, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) was planning to introduce a resolution calling on Bush to begin proceedings immediately to have Israel extradite Obeid to the United States, so he could stand trial for the kidnapping, torture and possible murder of Higgins.

Israeli officials who have interrogated Obeid say he has admitted to helping orchestrate the kidnapping.

Elsewhere on the Hill, Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R-Kan.), who has been the leading public critic of the Israeli taking of Obeid, tried to soften his stand Wednesday.

“My basic message to Israel is this: We are in this together,” Dole said. “We both have vital interests at stake. Whenever possible, we ought to act together, and always we ought to take fully into account the vital interests of the other when they contemplate unilateral action. That is a way to avoid any wedge, any wedge, being driven between us.”

On Monday, Dole lashed out at Israel on the Senate floor, saying its capture of Obeid was irresponsible. “Perhaps a little more restraint on the part of the Israelis one of these days would be refreshing,” he was quoted as saying.

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