The Algerian Foreign Ministry spokesman said today that he expects the U.S. hostages to come first to Algiers -- "more likely here than elsewhere" -- on their way out of Iran.
Comments by Algerian officials and the smiling demeanor of American diplomats as they finished another round of late-night negotiations suggested that Iran and the United States had reached a final agreement that awaited only a formal unveiling and signature in Washington and Tehran.
Chief U.S. negotiator Warren Christopher and the principal members of his negotiating team here in Algiers for the last 10 days went tonight to the Algerian Foreign Ministry and emerged 90 minutes later wreathed in smiles. They refused comment, and an Algerian Foreign Ministry spokesman would say only that reporters would be called in for a briefing tonight if a final accord was reached.
[Monday morning, airport officials in Ankara, Turkey, said two Algerian airliners landed there for the refueling stop on the way to Tehran. The planes left for Tehran at approximately 2 a.m. EST, and it was widely believed that they were being sent to pick up the hostages in Iran.]
It will be up to the U.S. government to decide how long the released hostages remain in Algiers if they do come here, he said.
Even as negotiations continued without letup between Washington and Tehran via the Algerian capital, the first physical preparation was made here for the possible release of the hostages through Algiers. Algerian state television set up equipment at Algiers Airport near the VIP reception area.
The Algerian ruling-party newspaper, El Moudjahid, said this morning that the release of the hostages in Iran "appears imminent" and could take place "from one moment to the next."
But Baba Ali said in a phone conversation after midday that no funds had been transferred yet to the Algerian Central Bank to be held for Iran.
The Algerian spokesman said the governor of the Algerian Central Bank, Seghir Mostafai, is remaining in Tehran as part of the Algerian negotiating team there, rather than going to London to take part in the financial arrangements there, as had been reported yesterday. It is assumed here that the Bank of England is setting up one or more escrow accounts for the transfer of Iranian funds by way of Algeria.
Representatives of the Algerian Central Bank are playing key roles in the talks with the American and British financial and legal experts at the Algerian Foreign Ministry, U.S. Embassy sources confirmed.
The experts sat in continuous session at the ministry from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. yesterday and various members of the Anglo-American team went back to the ministry today.
U.S. Embassy Minister Christopher Ross said that the American negotiators here have been in touch with Washington "around the clock" and indicated that he expects this to continue. "Exchanges are continuing" with Iran through the Algerian Foreign Ministry, he said.
He said the embassy asked the Algerians yesterday to install additional, improved telephones to augment the antiquated, frequently malfunctioning regular embassy telephones that have been an obstacle to speedy, efficient direct talks between Washington and the embassy and between the embassy and the Algerian Foreign Ministry halfway across the city.
The renewed stress on that request seemed to indicate that the embassy expects to continue to be engaged in intensive communications.
The chief U.S. neogtiator, Warren Christopehr, spent more than five hours in three meetings with Algerian Foreign Minister Mohammed Benyahia yesterday. The last of those meetings ended at 2:15 a.m. today, the U.S. Embassy said.
Christopher continued to work at the embassy until 3:30 a.m. today and at 9:30 a.m. he was back at the ministry meeting with Benyahia again for two hours, a spokesman said.
In the afternoon, Christopher posed for photographers for the first time in the relatively relaxed setting of the goarden of the U.S. ambassador's residence and then left for another meeting of an hour with Benyahia.
The annoucement from Tehran that an agreement had virtually been reached came during Christopher's absence. When he returned, he rushed into the embassy building, resolutely turning his back on reporters shouting questions about the Iranian statement.
Embassy Minister Ross emerged shortly afterward to say, "We have no comment . . . on the many rumors and press reports that are now circulating."
Later, Christopher reemerged and said he might go back to the ministry again tonight.
Baba Ali was still saying, "Everyone thinks that this affair is coming to an end." Once a settlement is announced, "a rapid succession of events will unfold here," he said.