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1985: Beirut ordeal ends for US hostages

VIDEO : Interviews with hostages and terrorists

All 39 Americans being held captive by the Shia Muslim Amal militia in Lebanon have been released, after almost three weeks in captivity.

Their freedom was secured after intervention by the Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad. The White House said no deal had been done with the captors.

The hostages were driven in a Red Cross convoy from Beirut to Syrian capital Damascus, 17 days after the plane they were on was hijacked by two members of the extremist Islamic Jihad group.

Most of the passengers were freed hours after the Lebanese gunmen diverted the TWA Rome - Athens flight to Beirut on 14 June, demanding the release of 766 Shia Muslims imprisoned in Israel.

But 40 Americans were forced to remain on the plane. One of their number - US Navy diver Robert Stethem - was killed on the first day of the crisis and his body dumped on the airport tarmac.

Thirty-five of the Americans were imprisoned in various Beirut safe-houses by the Amal militia for most of their ordeal, but four were being held by the radical Hezbollah group.

The freedom of these men is reported to have been obtained by President Assad, who contacted two of the most extreme Shia leaders to order their release.

"We thank you from the bottom of our hearts"

Hostage Allyn Conwell

The group finally left for Damascus at 1545 (1245 GMT) after 24 hours of confusion and uncertainty about whether they would be freed.

Some of the hostages praised their treatment by the Amal militia, saying it had guaranteed the group's safety and looked after their welfare.

The hostages' spokesman, Allyn Conwell, told reporters at a news conference they were all very relieved to be free.

"For anyone and everyone who has prayed for us, talked for us, waited for us or hoped for us - we thank you from the bottom of our hearts," he said.

In Context
The hostages were safely transferred to Frankfurt and then to the US after their release.

The White House said it knew the identity of the two original hijackers, but the men have never been brought to justice.

The American Diplomatic Security Service is still offering a reward of $5m (3.17m) for information leading to their capture.

The US Navy named the warship USS Stethem after the sailor killed by the gunmen during the hijack.

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