The decision by Shiite Amal leader Nabih Berri to take responsibility for the captives from TWA Flight 847, "probably did indeed save our lives," one of the 39 Americans held here told a television crew today.
Allyn Conwell, one of three hostages interviewed by ABC, said it was his impression that the original hijackers "were extreme fanatics."
In the interview, the three -- Conwell, an oil-field equipment executive from Houston living in Oman; the Rev. James W. McLoughlin of Geneva, Ill., and Ralf Traugott, an automobile dealer from Lunenburg, Mass. -- sounded a note of sympathy for their Amal guards and for their demands.
"In this specific situation, I believe the terrorism is over," McLoughlin said. Those now guarding him represent a large part of the Lebanese population that wants to see 735 prisoners, most of them Lebanese Shiites, held by Israel at Atlit Prison freed, he said.
"I think those are just expectations," McLoughlin concluded.
"We find that many in our group have a profound sympathy for the cause, for the reasons the Amal people have in saying, 'Israel, free my people,' " Conwell said.
After the interview, ABC correspondent Charles Glass said, he saw the hostages on a nearby street eating ice cream cones with their captors as they were loaded into a van to be taken away.
Conwell said the hijackers who seized the airliner almost two weeks ago intended to "hopscotch throughout the Middle East and in each place leave a body of at least one American on the tarmac." Traugott said more than 30 pounds of TNT was placed near his feet, and he thought about wanting to "die like a man."
"I honestly believed the hijackers were going to blow up the plane," Traugott said.
McLoughlin added that within moments of the hijacking, he and another priest among the current hostages, the Rev. Thomas Dempsey, had given general absolution to all those aboard.
Until they were taken off the plane by Amal, the hostages said, they were not certain of the hijackers' exact intentions. But Conwell said that later members of Amal told him the original plan of the hijackers was to stop at several airports, leaving an American corpse behind at each one.
Conwell, who acted as a spokesman for the hostages at a press conference a week ago, said that he did not believe there is now any separate group of Americans with military passports or Jewish-sounding names being held by the original hijackers.
He added that he was able to see all the other hostages two nights ago when they were brought together for examination by the International Committee of the Red Cross. None had been beaten or showed other signs of ill treatment, he said. But the three hostages also said that they are being kept in five separate rooms and do not often have an opportunity to communicate.
Berri has suggested that one small group of about six is not directly under his day-to-day control but is in the hands of the original hijackers. The three-man crew of the plane is in a sort of joint custody arrangement between Amal and the hijackers.
All three of the hostages interviewed today said that they were hopeful about Berri's suggestion that they may be moved to Syria or to a western embassy here to be held until Israel agrees to release the Atlit prisoners.
"I'm very encouraged by it. It's a very imaginative move," said Conwell.
Amal leader Berri also sounded optimistic today in television interviews.
"I am now less pessimistic . . . and more optimistic," Berri told NBC News. "And I think in 72 hours it will be the exit of this affair, if the Americans help."
Switzerland formally offered its embassy to house the hostages but refused to accept Berri's condition that it not release them until the Atlit prisoners are freed. Berri suggested that the hijackers might not go along with this, adding that if the hostages go anywhere at this point it probably will be to Damascus, the Syrian capital.