Americans Greeted by Civilians, Soldiers Along the Road
SOFAR, Lebanon (AP) _ The 39 Americans freed from 17 days of captivity drove from Beirut’s southern suburbs to Damascus on Sunday through rugged mountains in a long Red Cross convoy escorted by Lebanese militiamen and later by Syrian soldiers.
″It’s spectacular,″ said Richard Herzberg, 33, of Virginia Beach, Va. ″It’s good to see daylight after 17 days.″
He added: ″I think Lebanon is beautiful but, having seen it once, I think I will find other places more relaxing.″
Herzberg had been one of the four hostages held apart from the 36 others by fundamentalist Shiite Moslems believed to be members of Hezbollah, or the Party of God.
Civilians came out along the mountainous, war-ravaged road to watch and sometimes to greet the Americans. ″May God be with you,″ one woman shouted at the convoy near the Druse town of Alley.
At the village of Sofar, about 22 miles from Beirut, they reached Syrian- controlled territory. The Amal and Druse escorts turned back, and Syrian soldiers took their place. Two Amal representatives, Sheikh Hassan Massri and Ali Hamdan, remained in the convoy.
″Welcome,″ one Syrian officer told the Americans at Sofar. Allyn Conwell, who became the Americans’ spokesman during the Beirut ordeal, replied: ″We thank you for helping us.″
A little later they encountered David Walsh, the political officer of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, who checked his list of hostage names against the Red Cross tally.
The convoy entered Syria about three hours after they left Beirut, and Syrian soldiers fired their rifles in the air - a traditional Arab greeting.
″I felt free when we actually crossed the border,″ Robert Brown, 42, of Stowe, Mass., said later in Damascus.
The day had begun with the hostages being gathered at a school in Beirut’s Bourj el-Barajneh suburb. They set out for Damascus at 5:45 p.m. (10:45 a.m. EDT) in a convoy of 12 Red Cross cars and a yellow truck, all of them flying the red and white Red Cross banner.
Members of the Shiite Amal militia, who had guarded most of the Americans durwing the ordeal, escorted them from the school. They were quickly joined by Druse militiamen and three carloads of Syrian intelligence agents.
Some of the hostages were holding wildflowers. ″We’re happy,″ one shouted to reporters.
At the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Damascus, the Amal officials said goodbye to the Americans.
″Goodbye Ali, thank you very much,″ one hostage told Hamdan, shaking his hand.
The U.S. Embassy staff waiting at the hotel formed a reception line to greet the hostages. Ambassador William Eagleton shook hands with each of the americans.
″I recognize all your faces from the pictures we’ve seen,″ Eagleton said. ″You have become famous.″
As he walked toward the hotel restaurant for a snack and a briefing, Kenneth Anderson, 62, of Fox River Grove, Ill., said: ″I feel fine, a step closer.″
Asked if it had been his first time in Lebanon, he said: ″That’s the first time and the last time.″ However, he said he held no grudges and that he was ″just glad it’s behind us.″
Bob Peel Jr., 33, of Hutchinson, Kan., said he was ″merely relieved″ because ″it’s been such stress for 17 days.″
After a brief news conference the Americans boarded two white mini-buses for their trip to Damascus airport where a U.S. Air Force C-141 transport plane was waiting to take them to Frankfurt, West Germany.
Five minutes after midnight they boarded the plane, and 15 minutes later the door was closed. As Embassy staffers returned to their cars, the plane taxied down the runway and took of for their six-hour flight to West Germany.