BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – A U.S. Marine whose apparent kidnapping in Iraq was followed by conflicting claims – first that he was beheaded, then that he was alive – contacted U.S. authorities Thursday and was safe in his native Lebanon. The Navy was investigating whether his abduction could have been a hoax.

Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, reported missing from his base near the troubled city of Fallujah 18 days ago, arranged with American officials to pick him up Thursday afternoon in Beirut and bring him to the U.S. Embassy, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington.

At nearly the same time, a gunfight broke out between members of Hassoun’s clan in his home city of Tripoli and business rivals who called them American collaborators because Hassoun joined the Marines. Two people were killed.

Hassoun’s older brother, Mohamad, said Thursday in front of his house in West Jordan, Utah, that he had spoken briefly with him by phone, but couldn’t offer any details about his disappearance and refused comment on the hoax question.

“He sounded OK. I was told that he has lost some weight, but he is well,” he said.

Confusion had surrounded the fate of the 24-year-old, Lebanese-born Hassoun since a dramatic videotape broadcast on Arab television June 27 showed him with his eyes covered by a white blindfold and a sword hanging over his head.

His reported capture, claimed by a group calling itself “Islamic Response,” came during the tense run-up to the U.S. transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government on June 28, a period of increased abductions and killings of foreigners and attacks on U.S. forces.

A statement on an Islamic militant Web site Saturday claimed that Hassoun had been beheaded, as were an American businessman and a Korean translator in Iraq and an American contractor in Saudi Arabia. The next day, a statement on another Islamic Web site denied he had been killed.

In the latest twists to Hassoun’s story, there was speculation he might have deserted his base and headed to Lebanon when he was abducted. The Navy was investigating whether the entire kidnapping might have been part of a hoax.

“I don’t think they’re ruling that out. It would be fair to say they’re not ruling that out,” a Marine spokesman, Maj. Nat Fahy, told The Associated Press.

A spokesman for the Bahrain-based U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet said the “matter is under investigation by Naval Criminal Investigative Service” and referred further questions to Washington.

It was unclear how Hassoun, who had been working as a translator in Iraq, reached Lebanon and how he made contact with American officials. An embassy spokeswoman, Elizabeth Wharton, said the Marine arrived at the fortified embassy, located in a hilly Beirut suburb, accompanied by relatives.

Boucher said he had no information on Hassoun’s immediate plans, and that his military status would be up to the Defense Department.

A neighbor in Tripoli, who refused to give his name, said Hassoun left Lebanon for Utah in 1999, joining his parents and brother. Educated in Lebanon at American schools, he joined the Marines in 2001 and had not been back to Lebanon since. He married an American woman two years ago, but they divorced.

The neighbor and a distant cousin, Abdullah Hassoun, said the Marine wed a cousin in Lebanon by proxy several months ago. His father signed the marriage contract for him, which is permitted by Islam.

The Marines said Hassoun disappeared June 20 on “unauthorized leave” but changed his status to “captured” after the videotape of him blindfolded surfaced a week later.

On Monday, after the conflicting reports of his killing, the group Islamic Response issued a statement broadcast on the satellite network Al-Jazeera saying it had Hassoun and that he was safe.

Earlier, the captors claimed Hassoun was romantically involved with an Arab woman, and that they lured him away from his Marine base and captured him.

There also were earlier reports from U.S. military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, that Hassoun might have been trying to get to Lebanon when he was captured. Some officials reportedly said the Marine fled his camp after seeing a comrade killed by a mortar shell; others indicated he was indeed lured away and kidnapped.

For Hassoun to reach Lebanon from Iraq, about 500 miles away, he would have to travel through Syria, which borders Iraq’s western Anbar province. His unit, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, is based at the border.

A Lebanese government official said Wednesday the kidnappers released Hassoun after he promised not to return to the U.S. military.

Two FBI agents had met with the Hassoun family in Utah for about 20 minutes Wednesday. The agents were not there to deliver any news to the family, but instead were sent to determine where the family was getting its information about Hassoun’s whereabouts, agent Kelly Kleinvachter said.

Earlier Thursday, no overt signs of joy or preparations to welcome Hassoun could be seen at the family residence in Tripoli, an apartment in the low-income Abu Samra district.

The shooting incident Thursday happened in another neighborhood, Lebanese security and hospital officials said. They said the two people killed and three wounded were not part of the Hassoun clan, which is made up of about 1,000 people.

The security officials said the gunbattle stemmed from an old dispute about the location of street vendors outside a shop owned by a Hassoun clan member.

Witnesses said the vendors provoked the Hassoun shopkeeper with taunts that his relatives were American agents. The shopkeeper ran inside, came out with a rifle and opened fire.

The Hassoun clan member fled, leaving his shop open. A relative of one of the victims threw a grenade into the shop, setting it on fire, the witnesses said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, is a predominantly Sunni Muslim town where anti-American sentiments run strong.

AP-ES-07-08-04 2129EDT



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