Militia Searches for Kidnapped American; Caller Claims Responsibility
TYRE, Lebanon (AP) _ Moslem militiamen searched rain-drenched citrus groves and valley caves Thursday for Lt. Col. William R. Higgins, and their leaders threatened to go after his kidnappers unless the U.S. Marine is freed soon.
″We want Higgins back and we have no red line as far as his case is concerned,″ said Daoud Daoud of the moderate Shiite militia Amal, the dominant force around the ancient port of Tyre.
U.N. peacekeeping troops and about 1,500 Amal militiamen virtually sealed off a 300-square-mile area.
An anonymous telephone caller claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s abduction in the name of a previously unknown group. He claimed Higgins, who commands U.N. truce observers in south Lebanon, is a CIA agent.
U.S. State Department spokesman Charles Redman denied Thursday that Higgins had any CIA connections: ″There was a claim that Lt. Col. Higgins was associated with the CIA. That is not true.″
The abduction brings the number of foreign hostages in Lebanon to 25, including nine Americans. Most are believed held by pro-Iranian Shiite extremists, whose main Hezbollah militia has been challenging Amal’s dominance in south Lebanon.
An Arabic-speaking man said in the telephone call to a Western news agency in Beirut that he represented the Islamic Revolutionary Brigades, and declared:
″William Higgins has joined the hostages. He will only come out after he is tried on grounds that he is one of the directors of the CIA in south Lebanon. Higgins is now out of Beirut after he was brought out from the south.″
He said a statement and photograph of Higgins would be released soon. There was no way to authenticate the claim.
Higgins, a 43-year-old native of Danville, Ky., heads the 76-member observer group attached to the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, the peacekeeping force in south Lebanon known as UNIFIL. Officers under his command represent 16 nations.
Daoud is military commander of Amal, the Shiite militia led by Justice Minister Nabih Berri. He said in south Lebanon: ″We’re capable of confronting the people who’ve carried out the abduction if need be, but I hope a quick, happy ending will be accomplished.″
He and senior aides told reporters they believed Higgins and the captors still were in an area southeast of Tyre, which is 50 miles south of Beirut.
Timur Goksel, spokesman for UNIFIL, agreed. ″We do not have any reason to believe that he is out of the south,″ Goksel said at headquarters in Naqoura, just north of the Israeli border.
When Higgins was seized, he was violating U.N. rules for travel by Americans in dangerous areas, Goksel said, but the colonel ″felt he couldn’t abide by these restrictions. ... Higgins felt that as chief, he should be out with his men and know what they are doing.″
American members of U.N. forces are restricted to the headquarters area and are permitted to travel in Lebanon only with a U.N. military escort, he said.
An Amal spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: ″Despite heavy rain, the search has been completed in areas north and east of Tyre. We are focusing now on Wadi Jilo southeast of Tyre.″
Wadi Jilo, six miles southeast of Tyre, is a stronghold of the Iranian- backed Hezbollah, or Party of God.
Hezbollah is believed to be an umbrella for factions holding most of the captive foreigners. The hostage held longest is Terry A. Anderson, 40, chief Middle East correspondent of The Associated Press, abducted March 16, 1985.
Higgins’ father died Thursday in Louisville, Ky., of congestive heart failure. The family learned of the abduction while trying notify the Marine officer that William F. Higgins was near death.
Daoud and his aides met at a Lebanese army barracks in Tyre with UNIFIL officers led by Lt. Col. Tor Planting of Finland to coordinate the search effort.
″We hope the kidnappers will have no chance of slipping out with their captive,″ the Amal spokesman said.
Cars manned by plainclothes Amal security men blocked roads along the Litani River from the Mediterranean coast to the slopes of Mount Hermon about 25 miles inland.
Uniformed militiamen with submachine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers patrolled a 12-mile stretch of coast from the Qassmieh Bridge north of Tyre to the kidnap scene three miles south of the city, the spokesman said.
″Our men are searching villages in an 800-square-kilometer (300-square- mile) area north, east and south of Tyre,″ he said. ″U.N. troops block the southern exits of the region.″
Berri has issued orders that ″no one sleeps until we get the man (Higgins) back,″ the spokesman said, adding that Amal is ″anxious to protect and safeguard UNIFIL, regardless of the nationality of the peacekeepers. Amal views Higgins’ abduction as a deliberate challenge.″
UNIFIL operates in predominantly Shiite areas frequently caught in the crossfire of Israel’s battles with Palestinian guerrillas and Shiite extremists loyal to Iran.
Security sources said French U.N. officers had interviewed a Lebanese bus driver who claimed he saw the abduction from a few yards away.
″The Frenchmen have managed to draw a face sketch of the gunman the eyewitness says he saw pointing his pistol to Higgins’ head as he forced him into the kidnappers’ car,″ one said.
Officials have said two gunmen in a Volvo kidnapped Higgins after blocking his car on a coastal highway.
Higgins was the third U.N official kidnapped in south Lebanon in three weeks. The other two, a Swede and Norwegian of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, were seized Feb. 5 near Sidon, midway between Tyre and Beirut.