The US Marine who went missing in Iraq and has been at the centre of a deepening mystery was said to be alive and well and at the US embassy in Beirut yesterday.
Officials said that Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun, who was born in Lebanon, appeared to be in good health. "We were able to go get him," said the State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "We went to pick him up and brought him back to the embassy."
It was not immediately clear when or how Cpl Hassoun arrived at the embassy but a spokeswoman gave an alternative report of what happened saying he had arrived with members of his family.
Mystery surrounds the disappearance of Cpl Hassoun, who had been missing from his unit since 21 June. Soon after he went missing, a group claiming to be his kidnappers released a video that showed Cpl Hassoun, blindfolded and with a sword over his head. At one point it was reported on an Islamists' website that he had been executed. The following day there was another report saying he was still alive. There were also suggestions that Cpl Hassoun had deserted from the Marines and that the video was a hoax.
A further twist to the saga emerged yesterday evening when it was reported that members of the extended Hassoun clan in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli had been involved in a gun battle with people accusing them of being American collaborators. Two people not members of the Hassoun clan, which numbers more than 1,000 were killed, officials said.
Reporters who visited the family home in the poor Abu Samra district of the city said there were no overt signs of preparations to welcome Cpl Hassoun home. His brother Sami declined to speak to reporters.
The first suggestion that Cpl Hassoun might be returned unharmed came earlier this week when members of his family in Lebanon said that someone identifying themselves as the Marine had contacted them and said he had been released by kidnappers and was "waiting to be picked up". Officers from the FBI visited Cpl Hassoun's home in Utah to follow up leads and the US Navy started an investigation into his disappearance and the possibility his kidnapping was a hoax.
A spokesman for the US Navy's 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, said the "matter is under investigation by Naval Criminal Investigative Service" and referred further questions to Washington. Calls to the Pentagon were not returned.
The Marines initially said Cpl Hassoun, who worked as a translator, had disappeared on "unauthorised leave" but changed his status to "captured" after the 27 June television appearance in which he was blindfolded. Various reports in the Lebanese media have suggested that Cpl Hassoun had fled his military camp near the Iraqi town of Fallujah, after seeing one of his colleagues get killed. Another said he was lured away from his unit, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, by an Arab woman with whom he was having a relationship. A Lebanese government official said on Wednesday that the kidnappers had released Cpl Hassoun after he pledged he would not return to the US military.
* Iraqi insurgents detonated a car bomb and then attacked a military headquarters in Samarra with a massive mortar barrage yesterday, levelling the building and killing five US soldiers and one Iraqi guardsman. American troops backed by attack helicopters then fanned out through the city to hunt down the attackers in clashes that lasted into the late afternoon. Tanks deployed in the streets.