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Kuwait Promised Early Release of Prisoners, US Officials Say

April 29, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A pledge by Kuwait to give ″early release″ to a handful of Shiite Moslem prisoners persuaded airline hijackers last week to end their 15-day siege in Algiers and free 31 remaining passengers, U.S. officials said Friday.

However, the five or six prisoners, among 17 held in Kuwait for bomb attacks on the U.S. and French embassies in 1981, have not been released, the officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

They said the gunmen, who had been promised safe passage, remain in Algeria - contrary to what the Algerian ambassador to Washington said earlier this week.

According to this account of the deal, Algerian intermediaries faithfully conveyed Kuwait’s promise to the hijackers. But the officials said Kuwait, which has a firm policy of not yielding to terrorism, may not have had any intention of letting the prisoners go in the first place.

″They have stood so fast for so long, they probably had no intention of letting them go early,″ one of the officials said.

The five-year prison terms of three of the 17 Shiite Moslems are due to expire at the end of the year.

During the long siege, the United States repeatedly urged Kuwait publicly and privately not to yield to the hijackers. But the Reagan administration was not aware of the terms because they were worked out through Algerian intermediaries, the officials said.

The account was provided by Algeria, which has played a role in resolving several hijackings, in diplomatic contacts with the United States in the aftermath of the hijacking.

On Thursday, Algerian Ambassador Mohammed Sahnoun said the hijackers had left Algeria without getting what they wanted and without concessions made to obtain the release of the 31 hostages.

Sahnoun also said that while his government would have liked to apprehend the hijackers, such a move would have damaged its credibility as a mediator in international crises such as attempts to obtain the release of the eight American hostages in Lebanon.

Sahnoun, addressing reporters at the National Press Club here, said the hijackers ″went back without achieving anything.″

The Kuwaiti press agency also said on April 20 that the hijackers - there were believed to be eight or nine - had probably been flown to Lebanon or Iran.

But the U.S. officials told The Associated Press the gunmen had remained in Algeria.

Another U.S. official, interviewed separately, said Syria had assured the United States that despite reports to the contrary, the hijackers had not been flown from Algeria to Damascus. Reports from Algiers had said the terrorists were flown to Damascus, from where they made their way by land to Lebanon.

The State Department has identified one of the hijackers as Hassan Izz-al- Din and said he might have been involved in the killing of Navy diver Robert Stethem in the hijacking of a TWA jetliner in 1985.

He was charged by a federal grand jury in seizing the plane.

This raises a possibility of a U.S. request for extradition. Also, Secretary of State George P. Shultz has said one of the passengers may have had dual U.S. citizenship.

He condemned the hijackers as murderers.

The plane, a Kuwaiti Airlines Boeing 747 with 112 passengers and crew members, was hijacked April 5 on a flight from Thailand to Kuwait and spent several days in Meshed, Iran, and Larnaca, Cyprus, before flying to Algiers.

Two Kuwaiti passengers were killed and their bodies dumped from the plane while it was in Cyprus.

The hijackers’ principal demand was the release of the 17 prisoners in Kuwait. The freed hostages included three members of the Kuwaiti royal family.

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