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Irish hostage in Lebanon reportedly released

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Pro-Iranian Moslem extremists in Lebanon Friday freed Irish hostage Brian Keenan after more than four years in captivity and turned him over to Syria, where he was reported safe.

'Irish hostage Brian Keenan has just been set free in Lebanon,' the Islamic Republic News Agency said in a brief dispatch from Beirut. 'Well-informed sources told IRNA in Beirut that Keenan was freed at 9 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT) local time.'

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Hours later, an official Syrian source in Damascus said the freed hostage 'was in the hands of the Syrian authorities,' and will be handed over to Irish officials Saturday.

Keenan, an Irishman who also holds British citizenship, has been held in war-torn Lebanon since his abduction April 11, 1986, in Moslem west Beirut. He taught English at the American University of Beirut.

No group claimed responsibility for his abduction, but it is believed he was seized by Iranian-linked Shiite Moslem fundamentalists.

Later Friday, the kidnappers released a statement signed by 'Al-Fajr (Dawn) Islamic Organization,' declaring the release of Keenan.

'We decided to release the Irish captive Brian Keenan and this was carried out at 21:00 Beirut time,' the group said in the statement, which was typewritten in Arabic and delivered to the offices of An-Nahar newspaper in Moslem west Beirut.

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Keenan's two sisters shrieked with joy when they learned of his release. An Irish government plane was due to leave Dublin between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. and arrive in Damascus at 12:45 p.m. Irish time to pick up Keenan, officials said. Aboard will be his two sisters, Irish Foreign Minister Gerry Collins and a medical team. The plane is expected to return to Dublin Sunday.

'It will be a very emotional time when we meet Brian,' Leona Spence said at a news conference with her sister, Brenda Gillham.

'We would not like any other family to go through this for we have suffered long enough,' Spence said, choking back tears.

A spokesman for Britain Foreign Office said 'we are delighted' about Keenan's release and added that Britons 'share the delight' of the Irish.

'We continue to urge the release of all hostages wrongly held,' the British spokesman said.

Syrian officials said the delivery of the former captive would take place at the Foreign Ministry, but the Paris-based Monte Carlo radio reported that Keenan was already at the Irish Embassy building in Damascus.

They said the Syrian authorities delayed the hostage handover until Saturday because of the expected arrival of Collins and Keenan's relatives.

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Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmoud Waezi was quoted by Iran's English-language newspaper Tehran Times Friday as saying Keenan's release was the result of several months of efforts by Iranian officials and Islamic groups in Lebanon. He thanked these groups 'who once more showed their goodwill toward the West.'

'We expect that the West will take similar steps for the freedom of Lebanese prisoners and Iranian hostages,' Waezi said, 'such a move will make our efforts for the freedom of hostages easier.'

'There have been intensive contacts involving Iranian, Irish and Syrian officials since yesterday,' said one security source who requested anonymity.

Reports that Keenan might be freed began to circulate Thursday from Iran. Similar reports about Keenan's possible release circulated in July without result.

Thirteen Westerners, six of them Americans, are still held by various extremist groups in Lebanon.

Demands by the kidnappers have included freedom for more than 350 Palestinians detained in Israel and the release of more than a dozen Arabs convicted in Kuwait of bombing various Western targets. The convicts' status is not clear since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait and the ouster of the emirate's government.

A group of Irish parliamentarians recently visited Tehran and won favor with their hosts by publicly calling for the release of 300 Muslims in captivity in southern Lebanon.

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Political sources reported Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam raised the hostage issue during a visit to Iran last week. Syria, which has 35,000 troops patrolling much of Lebanon, has expressed readiness to help resolve the hostage plight.

Shortly after the IRNA report, a Moslem militia source close to the Syrians told United Press International that Keenan was on his way to Syria.

The source, who requested anonymity, said Keenan was handed over to the Syrians at 2 p.m. EDT. somewhere in Lebanon. The Syrians could not confirm the report.

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mahmoud Waezi was quoted by Iran's English-language newspaper Tehran Times Friday as saying Keenan would be freed by 5:30 p.m. Beirut time but the time passed with no word of Keenan's fate.

Waezi said Keenan's release was the result of several months of efforts by Iranian officials and Islamic groups in Lebanon. He thanked these groups 'who once more showed their goodwill toward the West.'

'We expect that the West will take similar steps for the freedom of Lebanese prisoners and Iranian hostages,' Waezi said, 'such a move will make our efforts for the freedom of hostages easier.'

Syrian security sources had said earlier Keenan might be whisked to Damascus for a formal delivery to Irish diplomats.

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'There have been intensive contacts involving Iranian, Irish and Syrian officials since yesterday,' said one security source who requested anonymity.

Moslem fundamentalist sources said the possibility of paying a ransom to the kidnappers, who are believed linked to Iran, also was part of the clandestine diplomacy.

'I'm afraid we have no comment on all these reports,' a British Embassy spokesman said by telephone before IRNA's claim Keenan had been released.

Reports that Keenan might be freed began to circulate Thursday from Iran. Similar reports about Keenan's possible release circulated in July without result.

An employee at the Irish Consulate in Beirut said by telephone, 'Nothing new, but we are still waiting. We hope that this time the news comes true.'

In Dublin, Keenan's sister Elaine Spence said, 'We are taking it mildly this time. We are still wary.'

Irish Foreign Minister Gerry Collins said he was 'cautiously hopeful,' while Irish Prime Minister Charles Haughey said 'there are good and positive signs' Keenan would be released.

A spokeswoman for the Irish Foreign Office confirmed Declan Connelly, an Irish envoy, was in Damascus, Syria, in what officials described as a normal procedure.

Thirteen Westerners, six of them Americans, are still held by various extremist groups in Lebanon.

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Demands by the kidnappers have included freedom for more than 350 Palestinians detained in Israel and the release of more than a dozen Arabs convicted in Kuwait of bombing various Western targets. The convicts' status is not clear since Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait and the ouster of the emirate's government.

A group of Irish parliamentarians recently visited Tehran and won favor with their hosts by publicly calling for the release of 300 Muslims in captivity in southern Lebanon.

Political sources reported Syrian Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam raised the hostage issue during a visit to Iran last week. Syria, which has 35,000 troops patrolling much of Lebanon, has expressed readiness to help resolve the hostage plight.

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