Despite press reports in Lebanon yesterday that French hostages seized by Shiite Moslem fundamentalists were to be freed soon, Syrian and western diplomatic sources said here today that no release is expected for at least a week or two.
Two pro-Syrian Beirut newspapers said yesterday that the release of a four-man French television crew kidnaped in Lebanon in March and other Frenchmen missing since last year was imminent.
But sources in the Syrian capital with close government connections said they would not substantiate those rumors -- carried by As-Safir and Al-Shiraa newspapers -- or reports circulating in Beirut today that the French hostages had been transferred from Beirut to the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa, appearing on CBS's "Face the Nation" today, said he hoped the reports of the imminent release of the hostages were true, but he added, "I can't exaggerate. I can't feel very optimistic, and I don't have tangible grounds for that."
Sharaa added that "the Syrian government is doing its best to secure the release of the American and French hostages in Lebanon." At least one published report has suggested that there also has been progress in negotiations for the release of the five Americans missing in Lebanon.
A western diplomat here said, "There is more hope now that things will start moving, but the negotiations at this stage are thin between Paris and Iran. The Syrians are quite eager to resolve the hostage issue, but that will come later."
Syrian President Hafez Assad is scheduled to leave Damascus on Monday for a three-day official visit to Athens and nothing is expected in his absence, sources said.
French officials had expressed optimism after a visit by an Iranian delegation headed by Rida Maeiri, an aide to Iran's prime minister, and a declaration by French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac supporting Syrian policy in Lebanon.
The movements of a Syrian-born French businessman, Omran Adham, who arrived here yesterday and who has negotiated on behalf of the hostages in the past, are being kept secret, as well as those of a French official, Jean-Louis Esquivie, now reportedly in Damascus.
Early Monday, an anonymous caller claiming to speak for the Islamic Jihad (Holy war) said two of the French hostages held by the group would be freed Monday, Christian "Voice of Lebanon" radio reported. The radio said it received the call at dawn, but gave no other details.