On a spring morning 16 months ago, Benjamin Weir was walking along a west Beirut street with his wife, Carol, a few feet from their front gate. As she remembers it, two young men jumped from a white Peugeot with no license plates and forced her husband into it. As she screamed and Weir resisted, "One man grabbed him by the collar and gave him a blow on the side of the face."
That was the last she saw of Weir, a Presbyterian minister and the father of four, until this week. His captors released him Saturday, but with his consent, U.S. officials said they kept his release secret until yesterday because of intelligence reports suggesting that some of the other six Americans kidnaped in Lebanon during the last 21 months might also be freed.
Weir, at 61 the oldest of the hostages, was reunited with his family in Norfolk over the weekend, according to family associates. Physicians there found him in "very good mental and physical condition," White House spokesman Edward Djerejian said.
A state department official who asked not to be identified said Weir had told his debriefers that he had been held in Lebanon throughout his captivity and was not tortured. "For someone who's gone through what he's gone through, he's in pretty good condition," the official said.
The Weir family is to hold a news conference here this morning, according to a Presbyterian Church official in New York. Families of other hostage Americans said they will go ahead with plans, made before Weir's release, to meet here with Vice President Bush and members of Congress later this week.
Peggy Say, sister of abducted Associated Press correspondent Terry A. Anderson, said Weir's release renewed hope among the other families of hostages. "It's definitely positive proof that they do come home . . . . I think we need that."
The freed Presbyterian missionary, fluent in Arabic, had close ties to the Shiite Moslem community in Lebanon. U.S. officials have said they believe that the hostages were being held by a splinter group of Shiite fundamentalists.
A native of Salt Lake City, Weir moved to northern California at age 10. After graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary, he served as a pastor in Oakland and a U.S. Army chaplain. Then he was appointed to Lebanon as a missionary and, according to friends and family, he embraced that country warmly.
Since 1953 he and his wife had lived in Beirut, where he helped channel money from the Presbyterian Church for relief projects. When kidnaped, Weir was head of the church's missionary program in Lebanon. As the violence mounted, shortly before his capture, he wrote in a letter to friends, "For the time being, I have decided to stay off the streets and close to home."
After his abduction, an anonymous caller to a French news agency claimed that the Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War), a shadowy terrorist group, was behind the incident. The caller said its purpose was to "reiterate our commitment . . . that we won't allow any American on Lebanese soil."
While denouncing terrorist acts, the Weirs have expressed compassion for the suffering of the Shiite people. "My family lived in the largest Shiite population center in Lebanon for five years and has connections with prominent moderate Shiites," Weir's son, John, said in a recent interview.
"There have been prayers for Ben in the Moslem community as well as in the Christian," added Carol Weir, who is on leave from a job as assistant professor of Christian education at the Near East School of Theology in Beirut. She remained in Beirut for several months after the kidnaping, returning to the United States to work for her husband's release.
In March, Carol and John Weir went public with their frustration and anger at U.S. officials for what they believed was a lack of attention to the hostages' plight. The two toured the country seeking support for their efforts to free Weir.