Relatives of 13 of the 52 Americans held in Iran joined top State Department officials last night in a meeting with Algerian intermediaries who have seen the hostages.
The nearly 2 1/2-hour meeting at the Algerian Embassy in Northwest Washington yielded little information about the status of the negotiations to win the hostages' freedom. But Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie said the session reassured the family members that their captive relatives are alive and apparently well.
"If I were to guess by the faces of the hostage families who were gathered here tonight, they feel much better about their loved ones than they did before they visited this residence," Muskie said upon leaving last night's meeting.
Muskie declined to say, however, whether he likewise was reassured. Instead, he paraphrased reports from members of the Algerian delegation who, Muskie said, visited all the hostages last week.
"They were satisfied" that the hostages are healthy and safe, Muskie said, referring to the Algerians. "As of the time they saw them," the hostages "were in good health and safety," the secretary said.
Muskie pointed out that Algerian Ambassador to Iran Abdel Karim Gheraeib and Algerian Foreign Ministry official Mohammad Bel Hossein spent a total of 10 hours speaking to the hostages.
"They were able to speak to all of them and to take letters back [to the U.S.] from most of them," Muskie said. A number of the letters were delivered to the family members last night, he said, adding that some of the relatives "were busily reading" the letters at the meeting.
"I had a chance to share a couple of those letters," Muskie said. "They were reassuring kinds of letters" that also were accompanied by photos of the hostages taken by the Algerians.
"The pictures speak for themselves as to the physical appearance of the hostages, and the letters, of course, speak for themselves. . . I think that this was important to the hostage families," said Muskie, who also praised the Algerians for their "superlative service in acting as intermediaries between Iran and ourselves."
Most of the 25 family members who attended last night's meeting scooted away from television camera lights and reporters without comment upon departing the embassy. However, Penny Laingen, wife of acting U.S. ambassador to Iran Bruce Laingen, said she was "very encouraged" by the meeting.
"I was encouraged because they're not losing hope," she said of the Algerians who have been trying to help work out a solution to what Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher last night called "this long and vexing problem."
Laingen said she had thought that the Algerians, who have been working on the matter for about eight weeks, "might get tired" of acting in the role of intermediaries.
"But they're not losing hope. . .They don't believe that things are at a dead end. Therefore, we're not losing hope. The Algerians are wonderful people and they're doing us a great service," Laingen said.
She added that, based on the Algerians' reports, she believes her husband, like the other hostages, "is in good helath and in good spirits.