BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Shiite Moslem kidnappers freed French hostage Aurel Cornea, a soundman for France’s Antenne-2 television network, at west Beirut’s Hotel Beaurivage on Christmas Eve at 5:55 p.m. (10:55 a.m. EST), witnesses reported.
The Revolutionary Justice Organization said earlier today it would release one of two French hostages it has held since last March. The hotel is near the headquarters of Syrian army observers in charge of west Beirut security.
The bespectacled Cornea, 54, kidnapped nearly 10 months ago, was dropped by a black Mercedes-Benz about 200 yards from the hotel in the Ramlet al-Baida district in front of the headquarters of a foundation, witnesses said.
Two of the foundation’s employees recognized Cornea and walked him to the Beaurivage, where reporters and photographers rushed to interview him.
But armed French Embassy guards took hold of Cornea and put him in an embassy gray metallic Peugeot that was quickly cordoned off by French and Syrian security men, witnesses said.
French bodyguards cocked their pistols and sub-machine guns and, with shouts, pushed back reporters crowding in as the bearded Cornea, wearing a wine red sweater and gray jacket was helped into the car.
The car first went to the Syrian observers’ headquarters a block away, reporters chasing the vehicle said, where a Syrian army colonel climbed in. Then the car sped away and journalists lost sight of it in the traffic-jammed seaside Raouche district.
The French Embassy refused to give any information about Cornea’s whereabouts.
The release came 55 minutes after a self-announced deadline set by Revolutionary Justice.
Revolutionary Justice announced that a hostage would be handed over today in a handwritten statement delivered to a Western news agency office in west Beirut about two hours earlier.
The statement asked representatives of French Premier Jacques Chirac, Syrian President Hafez Assad and Iran to go to the Beaurivage for the release.
It urged reporters and photographers to head at once to the Beaurivage, where two other French hostages were freed last June.
Revolutionary Justice on Nov. 10 released two other French hostages, Camille Sontag, 85, and Marcel Coudari, 54, at just about the same time that the U.S. Iran arms sale scandal began to explode in Washington. It was contended that the arms deal was devised to help gain the release of Americans held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian kidnappers.
Today’s statement foreshadowing Cornea’s release was the third issued by Revolutionary Justice in two days about the imminent release of a French hostage.
The British Embassy earlier appealed to Moslem kidnappers to reveal the fate of two British journalists, saying Christmas would be a time of ″agony and doubts″ for their families.
A French military plane and a second plane bearing a French flag were at the airport in Larnaca, Cyprus, which has been a stopping point for some hostages brought out of Lebanon.
Revolutionary Justice, a group believed made up of pro-Iranian Shiite extremists, said in a communique Tuesday night that it would free one of two French hostages it holds within 48 hours.
Revolutionary Justice still holds another television crewman from Antenne- 2, lighting engineer Jean-Louis Normandin, 34.
They were abducted March 8 along with correspondent Philipe Rochot, 39, and cameraman Georges Hansen, 45, after covering a mass rally for the Iranian- backed Hezbollah, or Party of God, in suburban Beirut. The kidnappers freed Rochot and Hansen on June 20.
In its first statement Tuesday, Revolutionary Justice said its decision to release a hostage was a new goodwill gesture ″on the occasion of Christmas.″
The group spoke of mediation by Iran, Syria and Algeria, praised Chirac’s Middle East policies and urged France to stop arms supplies to Iraq, Iran’s enemy in the 6 1/2 -year-old Gulf War.
In all, 15 foreigners are now missing in Lebanon - six Americans, four Frenchmen, two Britons, one Irishman, one Italian and a South Korean.
The British Embassy appeal was published in Beirut’s two leading newspapers, An-Nahar and As-Safir, along with old pictures of journalists Alec Collett and John McCarthy. They were kidnapped March 25, 1985, and April 17, 1986, respectively.
″Christmas in Great Britain is an occasion for family reunion,″ said the appeal, signed by British Charge d’Affaires Francis Gallagher. ″But for the families of Alec Collett and John McCarthy, Christmas will be a time for agony and doubts.″
Gallagher described both missing Britons as ″friends of the Arabs″ and appealed to the kidnappers to ″get in touch with me in whatever method you deem fit″ to reveal their fate.
The Revolutionary Organization of Socialist Moslems, which claimed Collett’s abduction, said last April 23 that it hanged him in retaliation for the U.S. air raid on Libya that month. Britain allowed the United States to use American planes based in Britain in that raid.
The group, which is believed linked to the Abu Nidal Palestinian terrorist organization, released a videotape purporting to show the 64-year-old New York-based writer dangling from a gallows.
But U.N. officials who knew Collett could not confirm that he was the man in the videotape. No body has been found.
Collett was on a writing assignment for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees when he was abducted on Beirut’s southern outskirts.
McCarthy, 30, of Barnet, north London, worked for the London-based Worldwide Television News network. He was snatched as he drove to Beirut airport to catch a flight to London. No group has claimed his abduction.