Syrian Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam today said that negotiations for the release of American and French hostages in Lebanon were complicated by the fact that the captives were being held in a region outside Syrian control.
"We are only sure that they are not where the Syrian forces are," he said, adding that they were being held in an area that was under the control of unspecified Lebanese militias. There have been unconfirmed reports from Lebanon that the hostages have been moved to Moslem west Beirut after being held in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley.
Khaddam, the highest-ranking Syrian leader to make an official visit to France in more than 10 years, told a news conference that Damascus was continuing diplomatic efforts to free western hostages kidnaped by extremist groups. Two of the nine French hostages were released last month.
The fate of the remaining hostages, who include three journalists and two diplomats, has become an important political issue here. Unlike the United States, which has ruled out making bargains with the kidnapers, the French government has made significant diplomatic concessions in an attempt to win the release of its citizens.
France has moved to improve relations with both Syria and Iran in recent months in the hope that the two radical governments will use their influence with the kidnapers. Paris has cracked down on the activities of Iranian exiles in France opposed to the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and has indicated its readiness to repay an outstanding $1.5 billion Iranian loan frozen after the Islamic revolution.
At today's press conference, Khaddam said that Syria did not distinguish between American and French hostages in Lebanon. He said that it was anxious to secure the release of all the western hostages in Lebanon for humanitarian reasons and would be prepared to use force if it knew where they were being held.
The hostage crisis was the subject of long discussions between Khaddam and both French President Francois Mitterrand and Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, according to French officials. A government spokesman later announced that Chirac is likely to visit Damascus before the end of the year to inaugurate a French cultural center.
In an interview with the Paris daily Le Figaro, French Foreign Minister Jean-Bernard Raimond said he expected the remaining seven French hostages to be freed together. He said he was "almost sure" that the release of two members of a television team on June 20 was a preliminary step before the release of the remaining hostages.
Khaddam said he had "no new information" when asked about attempts by Jordan's King Hussein to improve relations between Syria and Iraq, bitter enemies for more than a decade.