Syrian President Hafez Assad's departure today for Athens on a rare visit to a western country has dampened hopes for an imminent, Syrian-brokered release of French kidnap victims held by Shiite Moslem activists in Lebanon.

Western diplomats here, nonetheless, said it appeared that movement toward a two-stage release of the French hostages was under way, with the freeing of a four-man French television crew kidnaped in March the likely first step and release of longer-held captives coming later.

Well-informed French sources here said the case of the television crew, seized in the Shiite suburbs of Beirut by the Revolutionary Justice Organization, was much simpler than that of the other abducted Frenchmen, some held for more than a year.

They said France had established contact with the television crew's kidnapers and letters and pictures from them reportedly were delivered to Paris last week via Damascus.

Syrian officials have indicated Damascus has more room to maneuver in that case than in the earlier ones, which were carried out by Islamic Jihad, a militantly pro-Iranian terrorist organization whose demands touch on sensitive relations among France, Iran and Syria.

Partly because of this, diplomats here are watching to see if there is a shift in regional alliances by Syria, which has been widely criticized in the Arab world for supporting non-Arab Iran in its war with Iraq.

France, meanwhile, has agreed to consider Iranian demands for improving relations. The demands are linked mainly to French neutrality -- rather than support of Iraq -- in the Iranian-Iraqi war, return of Iranian funds pledged by the late shah for a nuclear project, and a ban on Iranian dissident activity in France.

French officials have described Iranian-Syrian relations as tense and have privately expressed concern over what impact this may have on intricate negotiations over the hostages' release. In recent weeks, Syria's forces in Lebanon have fought pro-Iranian militias.

A surprise visit here Saturday by Jordan's King Hussein, followed by Hussein's trip to Iraq today, was seen as part of a move toward rapprochement between Syria and Iraq.

How an entente with Baghdad, though superficial, would affect Syria's effort to free French and U.S. hostages -- and to exercise leverage on Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalists to demonstrate Damascus' opposition to terrorism -- is unclear.

Assad met Greek President Christos Sartzetakis today at the start of his three-day visit, and said Syria denounces terrorism and "we prevent it because we suffer from it," United Press International reported from Athens.

Besides discomfort with western accusations of Syrian involvement in recent terrorist operations, this country faces persistent economic problems. It also seeks international support for its policy in Lebanon.

Syria's large defense expenditures, low exports and high energy bill have made its finances difficult. Foreign currency reserves are dwindling.

Western diplomats here said Syria has not yet renewed its annual oil agreement with Iran and since March has had to get its oil from Libya, Algeria and Saudi Arabia. Iran reportedly demanded that Syria pay well above the current market price.

Lebanese newspapers had said last weekend that a release of the French -- and possibly American -- hostages was near. But French and other officials here have said little while behind-the-scenes contacts continued. Syrian-born French businessman Omran Adham, here reportedly on a secret mission linked to the hostage issue, received phone calls from the French government today, but their nature was not known.

Reuter reported from Beirut:

Five persons were killed and 45 injured in Beirut in the fifth day of violence, that included a dynamite explosion in a high-rise building in Christian east Beirut that killed a mother and her young son.

Shiite Amal militia sources said another three persons were killed and 15 injured in southern Moslem suburbs during artillery exchanges and 25 were wounded when Shiites and Palestinians fought around a Palestinian refugee camp.