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SHIITE CLERIC OFFERS HOPE FOR HOSTAGES

Lebanon's senior Shiite Muslim cleric said Saturday that freedom for Western hostages in Lebanon is not imminent, but their captivity is nearing an end.

"The situation of the hostage issue is much better now than any time in the past," Sheik Mohammed Mehdi Shamseddine said in a two-hour interview on Voice of Lebanon radio."This improvement resulted from the new climate that has emerged in the region. We can say the hostages' problem has neared its end, but their release is not imminent," he told the Christian station.

He also criticized the Lebanese hostage-holders, saying: "If you stick to your error, then you may be depriving your country and countrymen of the benefits of foreign aid," Shamseddine said, addressing the kidnappers.

There have been news reports that the United States has blocked the flow of aid, badly needed to rebuild Lebanon after 16 years of civil war, until the hostages are freed.

There are 13 Westerners, including six Americans, missing in Lebanon, most of them believed held by pro-Iranian Shiite militants. The longest held is Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press, who was kidnapped March 16, 1985.

The sheik ruled out a quick release unless the United States and Europe pressure Israel to free Muslim prisoners.