BEIRUT, Lebanon -- The spiritual leader of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah group Monday denounced the U.S. downing of Iran Air Flight 655 as a 'barbaric and ugly crime' but said it will not affect the fate of the 16 foreign hostages in Lebanon.
The statement by Sheikh Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah defused fears the shooting down of the Iranian airliner carrying 290 people by a U.S. Navy warship over the Persian Gulf Sunday would provoke the captors to hurt their hostages.
Nine Americans are among the 16 foreigners believed held in Lebanon by Hezbollah.
'This incident has nothing to do with the fate of the hostages,' Fadlallah said. 'We find no justification in punishing the hostages for an act they are not related to.'
The captives are believed kept by the pro-Iranian Hezbollah extremists in Beirut's southern suburb.
Fadlallah described the downing of the French-built Airbus as a 'barbaric and ugly crime since it was a deliberate act carried out by America to weaken the morale of the Moslem people in Iran.'
The Hezbollah leader hinted at possible retaliation by Iran, saying, 'The Iranian people will not endure such an aggressive act, an international crime.'
Iran said all 290 people aboard the Iran Air flight were killed when it was fired on by the U.S. cruiser Vincennes.