Copyright 2002 Jerusalem Post
June 11, 2002
HEADLINE:Return of Hizbullah Captive Raises Hopes for Prisoner Exchange
BYLINE: David Rudge
The return to Lebanon yesterday of a Hizbullah gunman detained by Israel
for the past 15 years raised hopes of progress on an exchange deal for the
return of four Israelis held by the organization.
Officially, security sources said that Muhammad Barzawi was returned for humanitarian reasons, apparently because of a deterioration in his health. Nevertheless, the gesture after reports of recent renewed efforts by German mediators evoked the possibility that Hizbullah might release some reliable information regarding the three IDF soldiers it kidnapped in the Mount Dov region in October 2000.
A short while after the abduction of St.-Sgts. Binyamin Avraham and Omar Suwayed and Sgt. Adi Avitan, the organization announced it was also holding businessman and reserve colonel Elhanan Tannenbaum, apparently abducted while on a trip abroad.
Hizbullah has consistently refused to reveal any details about the fate of the three soldiers since they were captured. Earlier this year, the IDF declared they were dead and their place of burial unknown, whereas prior to that they had been classified as missing and presumed alive.
The decision was taken on the basis of what was reported to be reliable information and the families of Avraham and Avitan sat shiva, although the Suwayed family said it would continue to live in hope until provided with concrete proof.
Hizbullah has maintained a similarly obstinate stance regarding Tannenbaum and has also rejected persistent requests by officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross to allow visits to any of the hostages.
Barzawi was brought to the Rosh Hanikra border crossing yesterday afternoon and, after almost an hour of formalities, was taken by ICRC representatives into Lebanon, where his handcuffs were removed.
He was captured in 1987 when several Hizbullah gunman attacked an IDF outpost in the former security zone. Two of the attackers were killed and Barzawi was wounded and captured.
Reports from Lebanon said the was reunited with his family in Baalbek, where a massive welcome reception, organized by Hizbullah, was held. News of the imminent release of Barzawi was reportedly relayed to his family by Hizbullah and was also published in the Beirut daily As-Safir. The newspaper report said there had been a renewal of activity by German mediators involved in efforts to broker a prisoner exchange deal before Barzawi's release. The report intimated that this, together with the return of Barzawi, indicates a resumption of negotiations.
Haim Avraham, father of Binyamin, told reporters the families had been informed beforehand of Barzawi's pending release and had also been updated on efforts to secure the return of all the hostages.
He said that they also expect Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to raise the issue during his visit to the US and in his meeting with US President George W. Bush.
Avraham revealed that new methods were apparently being used in the negotiations and this gave rise to hope of some progress. He noted that Israel had released Lebanese prisoners as a humanitarian gesture in November 2000 and also returned to Lebanon the body of a pilot, who was killed when his plane was shot down by the IAF after infiltrating Israeli air space last May.
"We agree with these steps. We think it is necessary to make gestures in the hope that the other side will open its heart and open real negotiations that will bring to a close this chapter of the kidnapping of our sons," Avraham said.
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