Irishman Freed in Lebanon after Four Years as Hostage
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) _ Irish hostage Brian Keenan was freed by his Lebanese captors on Friday after more than four years in captivity, the fifth Western hostage released in five months. He was reported en route to Damascus.
The Irish government confirmed in Dublin a report from Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency that the 39-year-old teacher was free, and Irish Foreign Minister Gerry Collins said: ″I can tell you Brian is now on his way from Beirut to Damascus.″
Iran, which has considerable influence among Shiite Moslem fundamentalist groups in Lebanon, said it had worked for months to help secure the release.
A shadowy group calling itself The Organization of the Islamic Dawn announced the release in a terse, typewritten Arabic statement delivered to the Beirut newspaper An Nahar.
″We have decided to release Irish hostage Brian Keenan,″ it said. ″This was done at exactly 9 p.m. Beirut time (2 p.m. EDT).″
No group had claimed responsibility for kidnapping Keenan from the time he was abducted until he was freed.
An informed Syrian source said Friday night that Keenan ″was in Syrian hands″ but would not appear in public and until Saturday, when he would be handed over to the Irish foreign minister.
The source, who spoke on condition he not be further identified, would not say if Keenan was spending the night in Damascus or somewhere in Syrian- controlled Lebanon.
Almost all hostages released in Lebanon have been handed to Syrian officers there and escorted to Damascus overland - a trip through winding mountainous roads that takes 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
Thirteen Westerners are still believed held by extremist Moslem groups in Lebanon - six Americans, four Britons, two West Germans and an Italian. Most have been held more than three years, and Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press, has been held since March 16, 1985.
The statement Friday from The Organization of Islamic Dawn was just the second it has made a statement on hostages. On April 30, it said it was freeing U.S. hostage Frank Reed. The Malden, Mass.-born educator was released that day.
Hostage Robert Polhill of New York was freed on April 22, and two Swiss Red Cross workers, Elio Erriquez and Emmanuel Christen, were freed this month.
Reed, held 3 1/2 years, said later he had been with Keenan. Reed’s wife, Fifi, said Friday that her husband would fly to Ireland later to meet with Keenan.
In Dublin, a sister of Keenan, Elaine Spence, burst into tears of relief and joy at the news of her brother’s release. She and Keenan’s other sister, Brenda Gillham, had driven there from Belfast Friday as speculation grew stronger that their brother, after many disappointments, would finally go free.
The sisters were to fly to Syria early Saturday with Collins to greet Keenan, the Irish foreign minister said in Dublin.
Keenan was kidnapped by gunmen on April 11, 1986 in west Beirut while walking to the American University in Beirut, where he worked as a teacher of English. He was born in Belfast and was traveling on an Irish passport, but is also a British citizen.
IRNA had reported Thursday that a European hostage would be released soon. On Friday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Mahmoud Vaezi, told the Tehran Times newspaper Keenan would be released and said: ″We are thankful to the Islamic groups in Lebanon who once more showed their goodwill toward the West.″
Vaezi said the release resulted from ″several months of efforts of the Iranian officials and Islamic groups in Lebanon.″
″We expect that the West will take similar steps for the freedom of Lebanese prisoners and Iranian hostages. Such a move will make our efforts for the freedom of a hostages easier.″
Iran has linked the fate of Western hostages to that of four Iranians kidnapped by Christian Lebanese Forces militiamen in July 1982. The four are widely believed to have been killed. But Iranian leaders have stressed they would use their influence to help free Western hostages in exchange for help in freeing the Iranians.
Keenan spent most of his life in strife-torn Belfast, and he dismissed the dangers of Beirut when he went there to teach in 1986.
For four months, he taught at the university, writing home about the beauty of Lebanon and the fine cuisine and nightlife in Beirut.
On April 11, 1986, he rushed out of his apartment, late for an 8 a.m. lecture, and was abducted.
His sisters said Keenan’s mistake was to forget his Irish passport when he left. They believe his kidnappers thought he was American or British, rather than a citizen of a small neutral country.
Keenan was dubbed Britain’s ″forgotten″ hostage because his plight did not receive the same publicity as that of Anglican Church Envoy Terry Waite and British television journalist John McCarthy.