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U.S. Urged to Lift Just-Extended Lebanon Travel Ban

February 28, 1996 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Lebanon, once a caldron of danger for Americans, is now a land of opportunity, Arab-Americans contend. The State Department disagrees and insists that a ban on travel to Lebanon remain in effect.

The issue of travel to the Mideast nation drew scores of Arab-American spectators to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday as lawmakers and advocates urged Congress to lift the ban. Such a move, now part of pending legislation, would reverse the Clinton administration’s recent decision to extend the travel ban for six months.

``It is time now to either lift the ban or to replace it with a travel advisory, for both humanitarian and business reasons,″ said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., an American of Lebanese descent.

Advocates of lifting the ban say American businesses are missing out on lucrative construction contracts as Lebanon rebuilds from its devastating civil war. And Lebanese-Americans say the travel ban forces them to either defy U.S. law or jump through bureaucratic hoops to visit their relatives.

``We should not have to sneak into another country, or go through London or Paris, just to visit our parents or grandparents,″ entertainer Casey Kasem told lawmakers.

Joseph Cicippio, who spent five years and three months as a hostage in Lebanon, says it’s safe to go back.

``There’s no reason to maintain it at all,″ Cicippio said in an interview during a break in the hearing. ``What happened to us was over four years ago. It’s past history. Why keep the ban on?″

On Sept. 12, 1986, gunmen from the militant Islamic group Hezbollah seized Cicippio, then the comptroller of the American University of Beirut. He was released on Dec. 2, 1991. The State Department imposed the travel ban in 1987 at the height of the kidnapping crisis in the civil war-torn Lebanese capital.

Those Hezbollah terrorists are still operating in Lebanon, according to Robert Pelletreau, assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.

``Lebanon remains a safe haven for armed, organized groups with a demonstrated history of terrorist attacks against Americans,″ Pelletreau told the committee. The situation has improved since the last hostages were released in 1991, he said, but ``there are frequent terrorist threats against Americans, and there is ample reason for our continuing concern.″

Bruce Riedel, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Near Eastern affairs, described the Lebanon situation as ``improving, but far from adequate.″ He said the Lebanese Armed Forces, despite U.S. aid including 16 helicopters, 2,300 trucks and 494 armored personnel carriers, has been unable to disarm Hezbollah’s fighters.

In the past four years, 45,000 Americans have traveled to Lebanon without incident, Abraham said, many using dual citizenship privileges or simply defying the travel ban.