BEIRUT, FEB. 23 -- Local security officials and independent military observers in southern Lebanon said today that three men involved in the kidnaping of U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins have been arrested, but gave no encouragement that it might lead to the officer's release.

Daoud Daoud, a commander of the Shiite Amal militia, confirmed that two participants in the abduction, as well as a third man who was carrying a letter from Beirut to the kidnapers with orders to bring Higgins to the Lebanese capital, all were arrested by Amal last Wednesday, the same day the abduction took place near the southern port city of Tyre.

The courier was not able to deliver his message, Daoud added.

The Amal commander said his militia knew the name of the mastermind of the kidnaping, but had been unable to locate him. He declined to identify the suspect or the three men being held.

Amal security sources said they suspected Higgins was being held in the village of Jibsheet, about 15 miles northeast of Tyre. Hezbollah gunmen have fanned out in a cordon around the village, where there is heavy Iranian influence and a fervently religious population.

The gunmen prevented Amal and reporters from approaching the small town. Last Friday, Amal militiamen searched Jibsheet and took in a few men for questioning.

A security official in Tyre said today that "two of the kidnapers who were in the front car and a third person supposedly monitoring Higgins' movements were arrested, but the abduction was a very elaborate and professional operation and involved five cars.

"The kidnapers switched their hostage from a Volvo to a pickup truck, then to a Mercedes 280, and then the trail is lost," he added.

The group that said it abducted Higgins, the Organization for the Oppressed on Earth, has accused the 43-year-old Marine of being a Central Intelligence Agency operative under United Nations cover. Higgins heads the U.N. Truce Supervision Organization in Lebanon.

U.N. Undersecretary General Marrack Goulding has described the allegation as "nonsense."

Confirmation by the Pentagon of reports that Higgins had been an aide to former secretary of defense Caspar W. Weinberger and press reports that the officer had a high security clearance have minimized chances for his release, according to U.N. sources.

"This has been a very serious setback, especially if you understand how the minds of these kidnapers work," said one official involved in the investigation. "They now think they have a gold mine, with a shortage of foreigners in Beirut and the stream of information on the man. The kidnapers probably think they have the top man in the CIA and they will try to get as much as they can for him from the highest bidder," he added.