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Copyright 2002 Associated Press
Associated Press

April 28, 2002

HEADLINE: Hizbullah offers prisoner swap with Israel

BYLINE: Bassem Mroue

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Hizbullah today offered to release some of the Israeli prisoners it holds to win freedom for Palestinians holed up in the Church of the Nativity and in Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.

Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah made the offer early this morning in a statement read on the Hizbullah's Al-Manar Television. According to the statement, Hizbullah was ready to start negotiations "as of this moment."

The offer comes as efforts continue to end the 26-day standoff at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where more than 200 Palestinians, including about 30 armed, wanted militants, were surrounded by Israeli forces.

Israel is also demanding that the Palestinian Authority hands over from Arafat's compound four Palestinians charged with the assassination of Zeevi in October. Instead, the four suspects were put on trial in Arafat's office in the West Bank town of Ramallah last week and sentenced to terms ranging from one to 18 years.

"In view of the dangers surrounding the fate of the four brothers who are accused of killing the Zionist tourism minister and who are besieged in Ramallah as well as the fate of the brothers surrounded in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the failure of all efforts proposed to deal with those two cases, Hizbullah declares that it is ready to negotiate through any mediator possible to achieve the release of all those brothers and solve those two cases for good in return for whoever is agreed upon from the prisoners Hizbullah holds," the Hizbullah statement said.

Hizbullah captured three Israeli soldiers in October 2000 in Shaba Farms, a disputed area on Lebanon's border with Syria's Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Later that month, the group captured an Israeli businessman and reserve army colonel Elhanan Tennenbaum under unclear circumstances.

Hizbullah had captured the four hoping to exchange them for 13 Lebanese prisoners held by Israel. The group also demanded the release of other Arab detainees.

Sunday's Hizbullah statement did not mention the 13 Lebanese or the other Arabs.

Earlier this month, Nasrallah offered to trade Tennenbaum in exchange for a guarantee that Israel would spare the lives of about 100 Palestinian guerrillas still holding out in the West Bank refugee camp of Jenin. The camp fell in the hands of the Israelis hours later.

Since the Jewish state launched its military offensive against Palestinian towns in the West Bank March 29, Hizbullah has made it clear it wants to help the Palestinians. Its guerrillas have launched repeated attacks on Israeli troops in Chebaa Farms, of which the latest was on Friday wounding four Israeli soldiers.

Hizbullah, backed by Syria and Iran, led a guerrilla war against Israel's 18-year occupation of a border zone in southern Lebanon which ended in May 2000.

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