Two Cypriot students who were abducted in Moslem-controlled west Beirut in April were released and flown home to Cyprus today, only hours after two freed French hostages left Lebanon for Damascus en route home.
The freeing of four foreign kidnap victims within a 24-hour period sparked hopes for the future release of at least 18 other foreigners still held in Lebanon.
Engineering students Stavros Yiannaki and Panayotis Tirkas, kidnaped in an area close to the American University of Beirut on April 28, arrived at Larnaca airport in a Lebanese Army helicopter today.
A Cypriot government statement said the two students were freed after the "personal mediation" of Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat, following an appeal by Cypriot President Spyros Kyprianou. It did not elaborate.
The students said they had been well treated. "We were held in a basement, probably somewhere in Beirut. Yesterday or the day before, the captors said, 'it is all over,' " said Yiannaki, 25. "Today they brought us clothes and said we would be released in an hour. That's the first we heard," he told Reuter news agency.
No group had claimed responsibility for their kidnaping. However, Cypriot government sources said today that the students believed their captors were "the same group that held the Soviet diplomats and killed one of them."
Four Soviet officials were abducted in October of last year. The body of one, consular secretary Arkady Katkov, 32, was found three days later in west Beirut. A group calling itself the Islamic Liberation Organization asserted responsibility.
In the Syrian capital of Damascus, French Antenne 2 television journalists Philippe Rochot and Georges Hansen, who were freed last night in Beirut, met at midday with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa, who promised to push for the release of other hostages.
"We are very happy that our efforts have succeeded in obtaining the release of our friends Rochot and Hansen," Charaa said. "We shall not spare any efforts to obtain the release of all other hostages," he added.
The two then flew to Paris aboard an executive jet sent by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, who met them on their arrival at Orly Airport tonight.
Chirac thanked Syria, Algeria and Iran for helping gain their release and expressed "profound joy" that they had been freed, The Associated Press reported.
Chirac said he wanted to thank "the civilian and religious authorities of the countries which used their influence to help us in our approaches and in particular, the Syrian, Algerian and, of course, Iranian governments."
On the tarmac at Orly Airport, Rochot and Hansen embraced their families. Rochot, after thanking those who helped win his release, told French television that he and Hansen could not say much because they had "pledged not to talk," according to the AP.
The French Foreign Ministry said that the French ambassador to Lebanon, Christian Graeff, had been unsuccessful in efforts to make contact with the two members of the television crew still being held.
The Revolutionary Justice Organization, which took responsibility for the abduction of the four-man Antenne-2 television crew last March 8, said the release of Rochot and Hansen resulted from mediation by officials of the radical, Iranian-backed Shiite group Hezbollah, or Party of God, Syrian President Hafez Assad and Algeria.
France for months held intense negotiations involving Iran and Syria, which controls some militias operating in Lebanon, and Algeria.
France apparentlytried to improve relations with Iran. On June 6, an Iranian opposition leader left France, under pressure by French officials. The two countries also have been negotiating over $1.5 billion in Iranian assets seized by the French after the 1979 Iranian revolution.
At least seven Frenchmen kidnaped in west Beirut since last year are still captive. Five Americans, two Britons, an Italian, a South Korean, an Irishman and a Lebanese-born French woman are also still missing.