Reagan administration officials said yesterday that U.S. efforts to secure the release of abducted Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins will be undertaken through the United Nations and governments in the Middle East rather than by U.S. military forces.
President Reagan raised the possibility of a rescue attempt when he was asked at a White House photo-taking session if there was anything he "could do for Col. Higgins," kidnaped Wednesday in Lebanon by unknown gunmen.
"I have to tell you we're doing everything we can," Reagan replied. "We're trying to find out as much as we can, and we'll try to get him located and certainly we want to rescue him."
A White House official promptly discounted the idea that the administration might be planning a rescue attempt, saying "the president was referring to ongoing efforts through the U.N. and governments in the region to obtain his release."
House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), present at the photo-taking session, dismissed Reagan's statement as "just an off-the-cuff remark of the president."
White House officials acknowledged privately that the president had raised the idea of a U.S. military attempt to free Higgins by using the word "rescue" but said no such attempt is being planned. One official said that, despite intensive efforts to find Higgins, his whereabouts and that of his kidnapers are not known.
State Department spokesman Charles E. Redman, who also discounted the idea of a U.S. military rescue, denied assertions by a group calling itself the Islamic Revolutionary Brigade, which said that it abducted Higgins and that he worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Redman and ranking Defense Department officials said they have never heard of the Islamic Revolutionary Brigade and questioned its authenticity.
Meanwhile, Higgins' father, William, 72, of Louisville, Ky., died yesterday of cardiac arrest and kidney failure, according to doctors at Humana Heart Institute International.
Doctors said he had been undergoing treatment for a heart ailment at the Louisville hospital since Feb. 2. The doctors said he was comatose at the time his son was kidnaped and died unaware of the incident.
Higgins, 43, was abducted near the southern port city of Tyre where he was on duty as head of a 75-member U.N. observer team that is part of the U.N. Truce Supervisory Organization, a small group that has supervised armistice agreements between Israel and the Arab states since 1948.
He was alone and driving a car flying the blue-and-white U.N. flag when he was kidnaped, according to witnesses.
Redman said the United States would continue to supply U.S. soldiers for the U.N. truce force despite the incident. "We don't intend to let terrorists determine our policies or deter us from fulfilling our duties," he said.
Redman drew a distinction between American civilians who have been ordered out of Lebanon and U.S. troops assigned to the peace-keeping force.
Because of the wave of abductions in Lebanon, the State Department has been warning Americans to stay away. Last year, after three more Americans were kidnaped, use of a U.S. passport for travel to Lebanon was banned.
"In this particular case, the individual U.S. officer was under the responsibility, authority and control of the United Nations in his role as a member of the United Nations supervisory organization," Redman said.
Staff writer Molly Moore contributed to this report.