Hostage spokesman Allyn B. Conwell said before leaving Beirut yesterday that Americans should not take down their yellow ribbons until Israel releases 735 Arab prisoners it holds, but, later in Damascus, he qualified a similar statement by adding "if indeed they are not guilty of war crimes or if they are not legitimate war prisoners."
In a Beirut interview broadcast by CNN shortly before the hostages were freed, Conwell said, "I do sincerely pray to God that our people back home don't remove those yellow ribbons until the people in Atlit are back home as well."
Conwell, describing a "genuine affection" for his captors, also said that there is "absolute equality" and "parity" between the Arab detainees in Israel's Atlit prison and the American hostages in Beirut.
"I think that the people in Atlit are in exactly the same situation that we're in here," he said. "And I know that the families and the loved ones and the co-countrymen of the prisoners in Atlit are suffering just as much as the people in America are about our situation."
He said that if the detainees had violated no laws, then Israel had committed "an act of terrorism."
Later, in a news conference after the hostages' transfer to Damascus, Conwell elaborated on his earlier remarks.
"I don't know the status of the Lebanese detainees in Israel," he said. "Of the things that we understand to be correct, I think, to a man here, we all hope and pray that they are reunited with their families, if indeed they are not guilty of war crimes, or if they are not legitimate war prisoners. If they're innocent people being held illegally, then we certainly pray for their freedom."
Most of the 735 detainees are Shiite Moslems, and many are associated with the Shiite Amal militia, the faction that held the American hostages after the initial hijacking of TWA Flight 847. The 735 are part of a larger group of 1,232 Lebanese and Palestinians transferred to Israel or captured in southern Lebanon, and many have never been formally charged with a crime under either Israeli or Lebanese law. Israel has released 497 detainees, including 31 last Monday.
Conwell, 39, a native of Houston, has had extensive contact with the Middle East, having spent much of the last decade in Arab countries as a representative of numerous oil-field service companies. He also reportedly speaks some Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages.
He now lives in Muscat, Oman, where we works as area manager for Enterra Oil Field Services of Radnor, Pa., a subsidiary of Houston's Oil Field Rental Services Co.
Another hostage, Flight 847 pilot John Testrake, said from Beirut that the Israeli deten tion is "an act of state terrorism."
"These people have a just grievance," Testrake said on CNN, referring to the hijackers.
"Their problem is as grievous as our problem," he said.