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IRAN SAYS IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH HOSTAGE ISSUE

Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said Wednesday Tehran had nothing to do with the holding of Western hostages by pro-Iranian groups in Lebanon.

"This is a problem of Lebanese, Americans and Israelis. It has nothing to do with Iran," the Iranian news agency IRNA, received in Cyprus, quoted Rafsanjani as saying."The Americans are not much interested in release of the hostages and want to take advantage of this human issue," he said in a joint news conference with Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, who was winding up a four-day state visit.

The IRNA report gave no further details.

Most of the 12 Western hostages, including six Americans and three Britons, are believed in the hands of militants linked to Hezbollah (Party of God). The kidnappers have called on Israel to first free hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners.

Iran says it has limited influence over the hostage-takers but is trying to help win the release of the Western captives.

Waldheim was accompanied by Foreign Minister Alois Mock, who had been asked by Britain's embassy in Vienna to intervene with the Iranian authorities to seek the release of some of the Western hostages.

Waldheim and his delegation were on their way to Damascus for a two-day working visit during which Mock is also expected to raise the hostages issue. Syria is the main foreign power in Lebanon and has helped win the release of other hostages.

British Foreign Office Minister Douglas Hogg said in Beirut Monday he saw grounds for cautious optimism that the prisoners would be freed.

IRNA reported that Rafsanjani said Iran has shown its great respect for human rights by welcoming Iraqi refugees.