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Copyright 2003 Haaretz
August 27

Mediator visits Tannenbaum in Hezbollah captivity

BYLINE: Amos Harel, David Ratner and Aluf Benn

A German mediator met a few days ago with kidnapped Israeli citizen, Colonel (res.) Elhanan Tannenbaum, who is being held by Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The visit by the mediator, who reported to Israel on Tannenbaum's medical condition, is part of a deal in which Israel yesterday handed over to Hezbollah the bodies of two of the organization's members who were killed in southern Lebanon prior to the Israel Defense Forces withdrawal from the security zone in 2000.

Defense establishment sources expressed cautious optimism for the first time yesterday regarding the chances of bringing the issue of Israelis being held by Hezbollah to a close within the coming months. Security sources said that the hand-over of the bodies was "a confidence-building measure" not only with regard to Tannenbaum, kidnapped in October 2000, but also in anticipation of receiving information from Hezbollah on the fate of three IDF soldiers kidnapped by the Shi'ite organization and declared fallen soldiers whose burial sites are not known.

Lebanese sources said that in return for the bodies, Hezbollah handed over information concerning all four Israelis. The Hezbollah official in charge of the organization's activities in southern Lebanon, Nabil Kaouk, noted that this was just the first practical step in the framework of contacts with Israel, and that other steps would follow soon.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also said that the return of the bodies was part of a larger move. On Saturday night, Nasrallah said he hoped the organization would soon be able to bring home Hezbollah prisoners being held in Israel. Yesterday, Abu Dhabi Television estimated that the deal between Israel and Hezbollah would be completed within 7-10 days.

Channel 1 television reported last night that the German mediator, Ernst Uhrlau, achieved an initial breakthrough in his contacts with Hezbollah in recent days, following a long period during which the Shi'ite organization adopted a rigid stance, which, according to Israeli defense officials, prevented any progress.

Uhrlau, who oversees intelligence affairs for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, was recently appointed as mediator for the affair. On his return from Beirut, he met in Germany with Major General (res.) Ilan Biran, Israel's coordinator for prisoners and MIAs, and gave him a report on his visit to Tannenbaum.

According to reports, the German mediator said Tannenbaum was in "reasonable" condition. About two months ago, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that Tannenbaum's condition was cause for concern.

Based on the information received from the mediator, Israel decided to transfer to Lebanon the bodies of two of the organization's members. Sharon approved the hand-over, and has been updated on the handling of the matter.

Yesterday, at precisely 4:00 P.M., the bodies of Ammar Hammoud and Ghassan Zaatar were handed over to representatives of the International Red Cross at the Rosh Hanikra border post. Hammoud was killed in a suicide attack against an Israeli military convoy on the Qlai-Marjayoun road in southern Lebanon in December, 1999. Zaatar was killed in clashes with Israeli troops in the southern Lebanon town of Iqlin al-Tuffah in November, 1998.

The two bodies, which were received by a large crowd on the Lebanese side of the border, will be buried today in the southern Lebanon villages.

Hezbollah hopes that the return of the bodies is the first step toward the return of 16 Lebanese prisoners held in Israel, including Sheikh Abd al Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani. The two were abducted by Israel in the early 1990s in efforts to determine the fate of missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad.

Israel is also holding the bodies of dozens of Hezbollah fighters killed in battles in southern Lebanon in the years prior to the IDF's withdrawal from the area. The bodies are buried in cemeteries for fallen enemy soldiers.

Yaakov Avitan, the father of kidnapped IDF soldier Adi Avitan, said yesterday that the family had received early word of the intention to hand over the bodies to Hezbollah. "We knew it was going to happen; and naturally, our first expectation is that it will help get Adi back home," he said. "But we know Sheikh Nasrallah, and we have already suffered disappointments from the man and his ways in the past. Nevertheless, the return of the bodies is a ray of light. It could be a small part of numerous stages in negotiations with Hezbollah, and we simply don't know this yet."

Haim Avraham, the father of kidnapped soldier Benny Avraham, said: "There may be things happening behind the scenes, but we, in any event, are not being updated. I received information on the matter from elements abroad who were aware of it, and only when I inquired with the army did it emerge to be correct."

Uri Tannenbaum, the son of Elhanan Tannenbaum, said: "We all hope that this step taken today will lead to my father, who has been in captivity for almost three years, coming home alive."

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