The three American hostages who were transferred from the Iranian Foreign Ministry last Saturday apparently acquiesced in being moved after resisting a similar move 11 days before, the State Department said yesterday. r
Spokesman John Trattner provided some new details of the surprise transfer, first reported early Sunday by Pars, the Iranian new agency, but no new light on its underlying motivation or significance.
The three Americans are L. Bruce Laingen, the U.S. charge d'affaires; Victor L. Tomseth, a political officer, and Michael Howland, a security officer. They were at the Iranian Foreign Ministry when the U.S. Embassy compound was taken over by militant students on Nov. 4, 1979, and had been in custody at the ministry ever since.
According to Trattner, a first attempt was made to transfer the three to a place of confinement with some of the 49 other hostages last Dec. 23. "They declined to be moved, without knowing the reason for the move, without knowing where they were to be sent and without any conviction that the move had been authorized by senior Iranian officials," the spokesman said.
Trattner said information from Tehran indicated that the three acquiesced in the transfer last Saturday after being informed that the move "was for the purpose of joining some of the other 49 and that it had been sanctioned by the prime minister's office."
Trattner refused to comment on reports that there had been a scuffle during the earlier incident. Other officials said that no force had been used by the Iranians who came for the Americans, but that there had been an argument and there might have been "some laying on of hands."
The reason for the shift of the three remains mysterious. The Pars announcement said the Americans had been taken "to a more appropriate place of residence." The State Department said it was told, evidently indirectly by the Iranian authorities, that the move was intended "to consolidate government control over all the hostages."
Ahmad Azizi, spokesman for Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Rajai, was quoted as telling the Associated Press that the move was related to a government takeover of control of the rest of the hostages, who have been in the hands of the militant students.
"It was decided from the beginning that when the hostages were delivered to the government, the three at the ministry would also be taken by the government," Azizi was quoted as saying. "The other 49 hostages are now in the hands of the government."
There was much speculation, but no certainty, among Washington officials about the meaning of the move. Some officials expressed belief that the maneuver was part of an internal power struggle in Tehran, though they were unable to say just how the transfer fits into it. Official sources tended to discount suggestions that the Americans were being consolidated in one place in preparation for putting them on trial, or alternatively, for releasing them.
Some U.S. officials continued to express skepticism that the Iranian government has taken control of the hostages in any meaningful sense.
Trattner said the State Department believes that the three Americans from the Foreign Ministry joined some of the other hostages after leaving the Iranian government building, but that it is not known where any of them are being held.
Trattner said the United States continues to be concerned about the three hostages previously at the Foreign Ministry, especially because their access to the outside world has been reduced as a result of the move.
Beyond the reduction in access, officials are also concerned because of charges lodged against Laingen and Tomseth early in the hostage taking. Militant students produced alleged documents in which Laingen accepted the assignment of CIA personnel in the embassy, and which showed contact between Tomseth and an anti-clerical terrorist group.