A Lebanese-born U.S. Marine who was reported captured by insurgents in Iraq last month has turned up alive in Beirut and has been brought to the U.S. Embassy there, officials in Washington said today.
Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, 24, a translator with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, arrived at the embassy around 6 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT) after a flurry of conflicting reports about his fate and whereabouts following his disappearance from a Marine base near Fallujah on June 19. At one point he was reported to have been beheaded by a terrorist group that claimed to have lured him into captivity through a romantic relationship with an Arab woman.
With much of the Hassoun saga still murky, the Navy is investigating various aspects of his disappearance, including the possibility that it may have been part of a kidnapping hoax, officials said.
Adding to the bizarre circumstances surrounding the case, at least one person was reported killed and several others wounded today in a gun battle near Hassoun's family home in Tripoli in northern Lebanon, the Reuters news agency reported.
The agency said members of Hassoun's family traded gunfire with another family that had taunted them by branding Hassoun and his family as U.S. agents. An extended Sunni Muslim family with strong clan ties, the Hassouns reportedly are numerous in the Abu Samra neighborhood of Tripoli, Lebanon's second-largest city.
At a Pentagon briefing this afternoon, officials said Hassoun was safe, but declined to provide any additional information about him, saying his case was still under investigation.
"Corporal Hassoun is safe and is currently at the U.S. Embassy compound" in Beirut, said Brig. Gen. David Rodriguez, the deputy operations director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "We have no additional information at this time regarding the events that led to his arrival in Lebanon. Investigators are continuing to look into the circumstances surrounding his situation."
Asked if there were any indication that Hassoun might have deserted his unit, Rodriguez said, "The investigation is ongoing. We don't know how he got there or what went on between the time he was reported missing from his unit until he got into Lebanon and he came to the embassy compound under our control of his own accord."
Rodriguez added that Hassoun "came to link up with U.S. Embassy personnel" at an undisclosed location and was "not picked up by the U.S. military."
Pentagon spokesman Lawrence DiRita interrupted a reporter's follow-up question, saying, "Almost nothing that has been reported about Corporal Hassoun has been accurate when it was first believed."
Asked if were confirming that Hassoun did not desert, DiRita said, "We don't know, and there's no sense speculating, because most of the speculation to this point has been confused. . . . We'll have more to say when we have more to say."
Earlier, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher announced at a briefing that Hassoun was at the Beirut embassy, saying, "We were able to go get him this morning -- or this afternoon in Beirut time."
Boucher added, "He made contact with us and arranged a place to meet, and we went to pick him up and brought him back to the embassy."
Boucher said he had no information on how Hassoun got to Lebanon or whether he was accompanied to the embassy by family members. Nor did he know Hassoun's current military status or plans.
A Lebanese Foreign Ministry official said earlier in the day that Hassoun was "with his parents" in northern Lebanon, the Associated Press reported. Yesterday, a Lebanese official had said kidnappers released Hassoun after he promised that he would not return to the U.S. military.
A U.S. official in Washington noted that Hassoun has both U.S. and Lebanese citizenship. Thus, he apparently could, if he wished, remain in Lebanon, which has no extradition treaty with the United States.
Asked whether Hassoun is "in custody or anything" at the Beirut embassy, Boucher said, "I don't have any description of his status or circumstances."
The embassy "has a lot of different components," including a defense attache, Boucher said.
"The embassy is both able to take care of him, able to work with the military and the Pentagon as they make -- play their part in the process, and also able to work with the Lebanese government as they play their part in the process," Boucher said. "So [I] can't say exactly what's going to happen next, but the U.S. Embassy represents the whole U.S. government, and will do that."
He said he did not know who Hassoun might be talking to at the embassy now or whether he intends to stay there.
On Tuesday, one of Hassoun's brothers, Sami Hassoun, said in Tripoli that the family had been reliably informed that he was alive and had been freed.
"He's alive and he's released and thank God for that," Sami Hassoun told CNN.
Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, said last week that Hassoun was on "an unauthorized absence" at the time of his disappearance.
Several days after Hassoun vanished, a group calling itself Islamic Response claimed to have captured him. It threatened to behead Hassoun if the U.S. military in Iraq did not release all its prisoners. A videotape broadcast by the Arabic al-Jazeera network on June 27 showed Hassoun blindfolded beneath a sword that one of his captors held above his head.
On Saturday, a group called the Ansar al-Sunna Army asserted on two Web sites that it had "slaughtered" Hassoun and said it would soon release video to prove it.
On Sunday, however, the Ansar al-Sunna Army denied that it had issued the previous statements claiming responsibility for Hassoun's murder.
Ansar al-Sunna says it has carried out a number of suicide bombings in Iraq. It is believed to be an offshoot of Ansar al-Islam, a radical Muslim group that operated in a Kurdish area of northern Iraq and had ties to the al Qaeda terrorist network.