Copyright 1990 Times Newspapers Limited

The Times

April 24, 1990

HEADLINE: Israel could open way to releases

BYLINE: From Richard Owen, Jerusalem


A DECISION by Israel to set free some or all of the 300 Shia Muslim prisoners it holds could be the key to the release of further Western hostages in Lebanon. But the Israelis show themselves in no mood to take such a step.

Sources in southern Lebanon indicated last night that General Antoine Lahad, head of the South Lebanon Army, the Arab militia allied with Israel, might consider releasing some of the Shia prisoners held in southern Lebanon today or tomorrow to coincide with the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan, a traditional time for such amnesties. Israeli officials were unable to confirm this. Sources insisted that any action by the SLA would be unrelated to the hostage negotiations.

Yesterday Dr Ali Akbar Velayati, the Iranian Foreign Minister, called for the release of Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, the leading Shia cleric who was kidnapped by Israeli commandos from his home in southern Lebanon last July.

Western diplomats said Israel's main aim was to use its Arab prisoners as leverage to gain freedom for Israeli servicemen captured during clashes in Lebanon in the 1980s and described as ''missing in action''.

Two Israeli soldiers, Rahamim Alscheich and British-born Joseph Fink, were captured by a Hezbollah squad in southern Lebanon in February, 1986. A third Israeli, Ron Arad, an Air Force navigator, was shot down over Lebanon soon afterwards.

There have been unconfirmed reports that Fink and Alscheich died at the time of their capture four years ago, or shortly afterwards. But senior Israeli Army officers say they regard the servicemen as being alive ''until proven otherwise''. Most of Israel's Arab prisoners, captured during clashes in or near the Israeli-imposed security zone in southern Lebanon, are held at Khiam, a high-security prison inside the zone.

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