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Three IDF soldiers abducted by Hizbullah

By Arieh O'Sullivan and David Rudge

Sunday, October 8 2000      9 Tishri 5761

HAIFA (October 8) - The IDF amassed forces along the northern border last night, while the government launched intensive back-channel negotiations to locate and win the release of three IDF soldiers abducted by Hizbullah guerrillas yesterday on Mount Dov, near the disputed Shaba region.

Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the country would spare no effort to get the soldiers back.

Hizbullah guerrillas nabbed the three soldiers from a command car patrolling the security road at 12:45 p.m., in an apparently well-planned ambush. They then bundled them into a waiting car and took them deep into Lebanon, military sources said.

The soldiers were identified as St.-Sgt. Omar Sawayid from the Galilee village of Salame near Karmiel, St.-Sgt. Avraham Binyamin from Bnei Brak, and Sgt. Adi Avitan from Tiberias, all from the Engineering Corps.

Military sources said there were no signs that the three had been injured, or used their weapons.

Shortly after the capture, IDF tanks and artillery shelled the suspected firing sites of Hizbullah's mortars and Katyusha rockets, and combat helicopters and fighter planes flew into Lebanon to try to block the kidnappers' escape.

This was the first IDF action inside Lebanon since Israel pulled out of the country on May 24. Some reports from Lebanon said that IDF commandos had been deployed to track down the kidnappers.

The IDF said that its helicopters fired missiles at a number of cars traveling out of the area in the direction of Kafr Shaba, in the belief they held guerrillas. Reports from Lebanon said six cars were hit and at least 20 people injured, none of them the Hizbullah guerrillas.

At the same time, Barak relayed a message to Beirut and Damascus that he holds them directly responsible for the kidnapped soldiers' fate. "The government sees Hizbullah, the Syrian government, and the government of Lebanon responsible for the welfare of the soldiers and their return," Barak said. "We will spare no efforts to bring the boys home quickly."

Scores of Tiberias residents blocked the western entrance to the city with burning tires last night and chanted anti-Arab slogans.

Just prior to the kidnapping, three IDF soldiers were lightly wounded in Hizbullah bombardments on positions in the Mount Dov region. The wounded soldiers were treated at the scene and later transferred to Rebecca Sieff Hospital in Safed.

Several hours before the kidnapping, hundreds of Palestinian demonstrators arrived at the border opposite Moshav Za'arit in Western Galilee, where they hurled rocks and other objects at IDF troops on the Israeli side. Several demonstrators tried to breach the security fence, and the IDF soldiers responded with tear gas and rubber bullets and, when the stone-throwers did not disperse, fired live bullets at the legs of those trying to breach the fence. At least one person was reported killed and several others wounded before the demonstration came to an end.

In Beirut, Hizbullah announced that it had captured the three soldiers, saying they dedicated the act to Mohammed Aldura, the 12-year-old Gaza boy whose death in IDF-Palestinian crossfire was broadcast live around the world.

Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said yesterday he would use the three captured IDF soldiers to secure the release of Arab prisoners detained in Israel.

"The aim of this operation is humane. It is to secure the release of prisoners and detainees in Israeli jails, but I will not go into details," said Nasrallah in a live interview on the Hizbullah television station, al-Manar. He also said Hizbullah sought to obtain the release of all Arab prisoners held in Israel through anti-Israeli action.

Israel is currently holding two Lebanese prisoners and hundreds of Arabs.

Barak said he was engaging in intensive diplomatic contacts to get the three soldiers back. He spoke three times with US President Bill Clinton yesterday, and also with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Barak also appointed former General Security Service head Ya'acov Perry to lead the team to negotiate the soldiers' return.

Perry said that the terms for any negotiation was an immediate sign that the soldiers were alive.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright yesterday urged senior Lebanese and Syrian officials to calm Middle East tensions fanned by the kidnapping, CNN television reported. CNN said Albright had spoken to Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, urging them to restrain Hizbullah. A US State Department spokesman could not confirm the report.

Barak last night telephoned the families of the kidnapped soldiers, telling them Israel would not rest till they were returned.

In Beirut, Hizbullah announced it had abducted the soldiers and that they were keeping them in a safe location. Hizbullah also demanded the release of all Lebanese prisoners held by Israel.

Security sources have long warned that Hizbullah was preparing to abduct IDF soldiers to use as bargaining chips for the release of Lebanese prisoners in Israel. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz said, "Soldiers were fully aware of the kidnap warnings. Unfortunately, we couldn't prevent the kidnapping."

He added that the soldiers had been abducted at a point along the border where there was no security fence. "There are a number of weak points there and Hizbullah took advantage of one," Mofaz said.

Neither Barak nor Mofaz would elaborate on the details surrounding the kidnapping or on efforts to get the soldiers back.

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