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Copyright 2003 Jerusalem Post
18 September

HEADLINE: Biran off to Germany for prisoner swap talks


Maj.-Gen. (res) Ilan Biran, who has been the point man on negotiations to bring back Israeli captives and soldiers' remains from Lebanon, is off to Germany again.

Biran's trip, along with reports that the government has agreed to release Palestinian as well as Lebanese prisoners in return for freeing businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three IDF soldiers, is raising expectations of a prisoner transfer soon.

Reports, however, have indicated the prisoner exchange likely won't include missing IAF navigator Ron Arad.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said negotiations were at an advanced stage and that there is hope of a deal over the upcoming holidays.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon reportedly met with members of Arad's family Sunday and told them a difficult decision is in the offing.

It appears Arad's family is being sounded out over the possibility that Israeli prisoners Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, Hizbullah former leader in south Lebanon who was abducted by IDF troops in 1989, and Believers Resistance chief Mustafa Dirani, will be released along with others in return for Tannenbaum and the IDF soldiers, without including the missing navigator in the deal.

The Fellowship for Ron Arad's Release and his family have been insisting that negotiations over any exchange deal include the missing navigator or, at least, information about him.

Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said any agreement over a prisoner exchange deal will include the release of Palestinians, Syrians and Jordanians, as well as Lebanese held by Israel.

"Definitely the Palestinians will be in any swap that is reached," he said. "We are about to finish the stage of numbers to get into the names and criteria."

Nasrallah was quoted as saying the negotiations are more serious than any previous ones and they had entered a crucial stage.

Last month Israel returned to Lebanon the bodies of two Hizbullah gunmen, apparently in exchange for a German mediator being allowed to visit Tannenbaum, who is being held by Hizbullah.

Tannenbaum, who was reported to be in reasonably good health, was kidnapped while on a trip abroad in October 2000, shortly after Hizbullah abducted three soldiers in an ambush in the Mount Dov region.

The soldiers, St.-Sgts. Benny Avraham, Omar Sawayid and Adi Avitan have since been declared dead by the IDF, but their place of burial is unknown.

The mediation efforts are being brokered by a German team headed by Ernest Uhrlau, coordinator of the Federal Intelligence Service and a members of the German chancellor's office.

A short while after the return of the bodies of the two Hizbullah men, Uhrlau visited Obeid and Dirani. Dirani apparently is the one who handed Arad to Hizbullah or Iranian officials when Arad was captured after ejecting from his plane over Lebanon in 1986.

Israel took the two specifically to try and find information about Arad and to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations that would ultimately lead to his release and return to Israel.

Senior Hizbullah officials, including Nasrallah, have consistently reiterated that the organization has no information whatsoever regarding the fate and whereabouts of Arad.

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