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By TERENCE SMITH (NYT) 1157 words
Published: November 5, 1984


On separate occasions last spring, three Americans - a journalist, a diplomat and a minister - were kidnapped off the sidewalks of Beirut by gunmen.

Little has been said or written about the missing men in the months since, either by the Reagan Administration, the victims' families or the press. The silence has stemmed largely from fear that statements might further endanger the hostages' lives.

But now, the families of two of the hostages have decided to speak out in an effort to draw attention to the continued detention of their relatives, in hopes of creating pressure for their release.

In addition, the wife of the missing journalist has flown to Damascus on a personal mission to enlist the help of the Syrian President, Hafez al-Assad, in freeing her husband. She arrived in Damascus Thursday and is hoping to meet with the Syrian leader in the next few days. Pro-Iranian Group Suspected

The three kidnapping victims are Jeremy Levin, the Middle East bureau chief for Cable News Network, who was abducted March 7 as he walked from his apartment in Beirut to his office; William Buckley, the political officer in the United States Embassy who was seized in a similar fashion March 16, and the Rev. Benjamin M. Weir, a Presbyterian minister who had lived in Beirut for 21 years and was kidnapped while walking with his wife on May 8. Mr. Weir was grabbed by several men and forced into the back seat of an unmarked car and driven off.

The State Department believes that the kidnappings were the work of a faction of the Party of God, or Hezballah, a militant, pro-Iranian Shiite group operating in Lebanon.

United States intelligence officials believe the Party of God was involved in the car bomb attacks on American Embassy installations in Beirut and the bombing of the Marine garrison at the Beirut airport last year, as well as the bombing of the American Embassy and five other targets in Kuwait in December 1983.

The Party of God is a shadowy, secretive group, said to be composed of followers of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader, who have declared their intention to drive the United States out of Lebanon.

''We believe the Hezballah took these three as hostages and still are holding them,'' a State Department official said. Syrian Influence

Lucille Levin, the wife of the kidnapped journalist, said she believes that Syria can help free her husband. ''I am convinced that President Assad has the power and influence to get my husband out,'' she said in an interview in Washington before leaving for the Middle East.

''I don't know if this trip is wise or stupid,'' she went on.''I just know that it's been eight months and I can't sit here on Capitol Hill and read my Bible any longer.''

Carol Weir, the wife of the kidnapped minister, has issued a number of appeals for her husband's release through the Lebanese press in the last few weeks.

''Originally we were counseled not to say anything publicly by the State Department and by friends in Beirut,'' said Susan Weir Nelson, a daughter of the Presbyterian minister, who lives in California. ''But we have become convinced that this is a political kidnapping and that we must speak out.'' Intelligence Reports

The hostages are reportedly being held together, along with Hussein Farrash, the Saudi Consul General in Beirut, who was seized in January.

According to reports received by American intelligence officials and the families, the hostages are moved every few days from one site to another in West Beirut and in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa region in eastern Lebanon. All four are said to be physically sound and reasonably well-treated, although Lebanese sources report that they are blindfolded much of the time.

No formal ransom demands have been made, but the families have received indirect word that the kidnappers want to trade the hostages for a dozen militant Shiites who were convicted of the bombings in Kuwait and are in prison there. The United States is reported to be trying to negotiate such a trade through other governments, but the contacts are said to be extremely delicate and State Department officials have declined to discuss them.

''We don't believe we can help the process by discussing it at all,'' one official said.

Mrs. Levin has undertaken her mission to Damascus on her own, but State Department officials said they had no objection to it. ''Perhaps the time has come for a personal appeal to Assad,'' one official said. Assad Efforts Reported

Last month Al Sharq, a Beirut newspaper close to the Syrian Government, reported that the Syrian secret service had identified and found the kidnappers of the hostages. The paper said President Assad was personally involved in efforts to free the men.

Mrs. Levin is being accompanied on her mission by Landrum Bolling, an educator with broad experience in the Middle East who is head of the Interfaith Academy for Peace, based in Washington. Dr. Bolling said in a telephone interview from Amman, Jordan, en route to Damascus, that he hoped to use his contacts with the Syrian Government to help Mrs. Levin get to see President Assad.

''The Syrians have the dominant influence over these groups,'' Dr. Bolling said. ''If anyone can help, they can.''

Behind the scenes, a number of private and church groups have been working intensively to locate and free the hostages. Private emissaries have made repeated trips to Beirut to meet with representatives of the Party of God and other Shiite groups. Special U.S. Probes

In addition, the State Department reportedly sent two special operations teams to Beirut during the summer to gather information about the kidnapped men. These efforts produced what the families describe as conclusive evidence that the hostages are alive and well.

Cable News Network, Mr. Levin's employer, has also made repeated efforts to contact the kidnappers, so far without result. ''I spent eight weeks in Beirut and spoke with 47 different groups,'' said Ed Turner, the executive vice president of Cable News Network. ''We believe Jerry Levin is alive and well, but that's all we have at the moment.''

Like Mrs. Levin, the Weir family has concentrated its hopes on Syria. ''The Syrians do have great influence in Lebanon,'' said Mrs. Nelson, the daughter of the kidnapped minister. ''I firmly believe that if my father is to be released, it will be the Syrians who do it.''

''The State Department tells me they're working on the case and that it is a very high priority for them,'' she said. ''But they only speak to me in generalities, so I'm not really sure what they are doing.''

Mrs. Levin says she has concluded that she will have to lead the rescue effort herself. ''There's no one else I can count on,'' she said before leaving on her trip. ''I'll tell you this: I'm not coming back without him.''

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