A team of Algerian doctors arrived in Tehran Saturday to examine the American hostages at Iran's request, and Iran's chief hostage negotiator said an Algerian plane was standing by to fly the Americans out of the country in the event of an agreement with Washington.
In a day of mixed signals about an imminent resolution of the 14-month dispute, Iran also asked for clarifications of unspecified parts of Washington's position on the settlement package that has been under intense negotiation for the last several days. Iran said it expected an "immediate" U.S. reply.
There was no comment from Iranian officials on reports from Washington late Saturday that the United States had accepted the most recent Iranian formulation for settling one of their major remaining financial differences.
Intensive efforts were under way in several countries to conclude a U.S. Iranian settlement.
In Algiers, Washington Post correspondent Ronald Koven reported, a negotiaiting team under Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher and aided by two top Bank of England officials continued meetings with Algerian intermediaries. The Algerians also met separately with Iranian officials as proposals and requests for clairification were exchanged.
Shortly before 1 a.m. Sunday in Algiers, Christopher's team began a new meeting with Algerian officials led by Foreign Minister Mohammed Benyahia. The meeting ended about two hours later, but some members of the American team continued to work at the U.S. Embassy into the night.
Iran's requests that the Algerian doctors check the hostages before release and that an Algerian plane be put on standby marked the first time the Tehran government has publicly referred to plans to move the hostages out of the country. But no final agreement of release date was announced.
The Algerian doctors were expected to see the hostages Sunday at the earliest.
At the Algiers airport, preparations were reported for the possible arrival of the hostages.
In West Germany, three U.S. Air Force C9 medical-evacuation planes were standing by at the Rhein-Main Air Base outside Frankfurt to bring the Americans from wherever they land first to the U.S. military hospital at nearby Wiesbaden for rest and debriefing.
In Tehran, Behzad Nabavi, Iran's minister for executive affairs and chief negotiator on the hostage issue, told the official Pars News Agency that "if the U.S. government is really concerned about the freedom of the hostages, one could be optimistic about the eventual solution of the stalemate."
Pars quoted him as saying that, on the Iranian government's request, an Algerian aircraft was "ready to take out the American hostages upon concluding the final agreement with the U.S. government." Nabavi did not say where the plane was waiting, but Pars denied that it was the same aircraft that brought six Algerian doctors to Tehran Saturday to examine the U.S. captives.
Pars said the Iranian government had asked the doctors to come "to confirm their [the hostages'] good health" as a good-will gesture. The agency added that this would "prevent any waste of time if the hostages are due to be freed," Reuter reported from Tehan.
Iran also asked the U.S. government in two separate messages delivered to Algerian intermediaries in Tehran to clarify the latest American proposals for unfreezing Iranian assets and transferring them into foreign escrow accounts in exchange for the hostages' freedom.
In relatively conciliatory language that contributed to optimism about an approaching solution, Pars quoted Nabavi as saying: "Clarifications by the U.S. government on this issue would be a great help to the solution of the hostage problem."
In earlier remarks, however, Nabavi had suggested that Saturday's U.S. message posed problems over the amount of Iranizn assets being released by Washington and over recent Iranian legislation on the hostage issue.
In addition, Prime Minister Mohammed Ali Rajai called off a scheduled meeting with foreign diplomats in Tehran at the last minute without explanation.
According to the Associated Press, Rajai shortly afterward summoned government officials and the head of Iran's Central Bank, Ali Reza Nobari, to a meeting to study the latest U.S. message.
Nabavi was quoted as saying that Washington "has decided upon the transfer of only a part of the Iranian assets" and that the Americans had raised new questions about amendments made by the Iranian parliament to a bill it approved last week allowing international arbitration of legal and financial claims between the United States and Iran.
Nabavi said the U.S. questions were under consideration, but he did not specify what they were. Reuter quoted diplomatic observers in Tehran as saying that the parliament's amendments limited the type of claims on which Iran would accept arbitration and that the exemptions may have drawn U.S. objections.
Washington Post correspondent Ronald Koven reported from Algiers:
U.S. Embassy staffers said Deputy Secretary of State Christopher and his team, augmented Friday by three British and five American financial and legal experts, had worked hard into the early hours Saturday on the hostage negotiations. The staffers said another such session was expected.
Some members of the U.S. negotiating team worked at the embassy here until 3 a.m. Saturday, sources said. Christopher conferred with Algerian Foreign Minister Benyahia Friday until almost midnight.
The chief U.S. negotiator returned to the Foreign Ministry Saturday morning to see Benyahia after the Algerian minister had received the Iranian charge d'affaires in Algiers. Christopher's late-night call on Benyahia Friday was apparently to bring the detailed U.S. proposal for wrapping up the deal. The American's return was presumably to pick up an Iranian response.
Christopher went back to the Algerian ministry a second time for 2 1/2 hours Saturday evening with State Department legal adviser Roberts Owen, who was seen smiling broadly upon his return to the embassy. It appeared that Christopher's second visit to the ministry was to pick up yet another Iranian message, rather than to deliver an American response.
Before Christopher went to the ministry Saturday night, the entire negotiating team had been closeted inside the embassy for the longest period since their arrival in Algiers. Christopher's later meeting with Benyahia after midnight was their third in 13 hours.
The renewed air of tension at the embassy contrasted eerily with the festive mood of Algiers. Relaxed crowds, huge traffic jams and firecrackers bursting all over the city marked the eve of the birthday of the prophet Mohammed, the founder of the Islamic religion.
Meanwhile, two high-ranking representatives of the Bank of England, Deputy Governor Christopher McMahon and Chief Cashier David Somerset, were reported planning to return to London Sunday. The two men arrived Friday as part of a team of bankers called in to aid the U.S. negotiators.
Word of their imminent departure concided with other reports that the governor of the Algerian Central Bank, Seghir Mostafai, was also scheduled to fly to London Sunday. The Britons were believed planning to accompany the Algerian official to carry out the transfer of Iranian assets in London, where the Bank of England has become a financial intermediary between the United States and Algeria.