The strange disappearance of Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, reportedly kidnapped in Iraq nearly three weeks ago, grows even more mysterious.
Senior Pentagon officials tell NBC News, a man claiming to be Hassoun, called his family in Lebanon and the U.S. embassy in Beirut, saying he was — "released by his kidnappers somewhere in Lebanon" and that he was "waiting to be picked up."
But in Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell said U.S. officials remain in the dark. "We have received reports that he may be in contact with various individuals and there are other reports that he might be in Lebanon. But we cannot confirm any of these at this time," said Powell.
Late Wednesday, FBI agents showed up at the Hassoun family home in West Jordan, Utah. And Pentagon officials tell NBC News that the Navy has now launched a criminal investigation into Hassoun's disappearance, and the possibility that his kidnapping may be part of an elaborate hoax.
Few clues since disappearance in June
Hassoun disappeared from his Marine unit on June 20. He showed up a week later in a hostage-style video, with a sword held over his head and his alleged captors threatening to kill him. Terrorist experts say, however, the group said to have held Hassoun is unknown.
"We don't know whether this group is simply an Internet address. ... We don't know if they were simply fabricated. We have no idea what's going on here," says terrorism expert Steve Emerson.
A second group later claimed Hassoun was beheaded — then retracted that claim. Pending the investigation, military officials refuse to say Hassoun's kidnapping was a hoax, but they point out he had reportedly talked openly about leaving his Marine unit to join his family in Lebanon. Whether he was kidnapped and then released along the way remains a mystery.