Copyright The Associated Press

May 17, 1990

HEADLINE: Israel Reacts to Proposed Swap of Israeli Bodies and Shiite Prisoners

BYLINE: By NICOLAS B. TATRO, Associated Press Writer



An Israeli official said today that a Shiite militia must prove that it is holding the bodies of two Israeli soldiers before Jerusalem considers trading the bodies for Shiite Moslem prisoners.

The defense official was reacting to a report that the mainstream Shiite Amal militia sought such an exchange.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the report was published in the Beirut daily Al Anwar on May 12.

He said the paper reported Amal would return the bodies of two soldiers in return for Shiite prisoners held by an Israeli proxy militia in south Lebanon.

Such an exchange could encourage more releases of 16 Western hostages, including six Americans, held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian radicals.

After two U.S. hostages were freed last month, Iran and allied groups in Lebanon demanded a goodwill gesture, such as the release of prisoners held by the Israel-backed South Lebanon Army, which has more than 300 prisoners.

But the Israeli official, who was authorized to speak about the newspaper report, questioned whether Amal actually held bodies of Israelis.

Three Israeli servicemen, two of whom may have been wounded, were captured in 1986 in Lebanon and are believed held by a faction tied to the pro-Iranian Hezbollah militia, which also has been linked to groups holding Western hostages.

Four other soldiers were reported missing in Lebanon, including three who disappeared since the battle of Sultan Yakoub on June 11, 1982. They were believed captured by Palestinian guerrillas.

"As far as we know the Amal organization does not have the bodies of any of our soldiers," said the official.

"If Amal believes the bodies are those of Israeli soldiers, let it first submit evidence to this effect. Only after we are convinced the bodies are in fact those of Israeli soliders will there be room to negotiate the matter."

The Israeli official said Amal had been claiming for some time that it was holding the bodies but had never produced evidence.

U.N. sources in south Lebanon disclosed today that in early 1989 Amal leader Nabih Berri approached United Nations' officials and offered to return Israeli bodies which had been given to them by the PLO.

In exchange, Berri sought the release of Shiite prisoners held in al-Khiam, the prison controlled by Israel's proxy SLA militia in south Lebanon.

Israel demanded proof and suggested evidence be given to representatives of the International Red Cross, the sources said on condition of anonymity.

The negotiations were halted after inter-Shiite battles broke out, and Israel captured Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, a Shiite clergyman aligned with Hezbollah.

Last week, Gen. Antoine Lahad, commander of the 2,500-member SLA militia, rebuffed appeals to make prisoner releases solely to help Western hostages. He said three captured Israeli soldiers and missing militiamen from his own organization would have to be part of any deal.

Lahad referred to three Israeli servicemen captured in 1986. They are Yossi Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh, soldiers who were captured in an ambush in south Lebanon in February 1986, and navigator Ron Arad, whose plane was downed near Sidon in October 1986.

Shortly after their capture, pictures appeared in Beirut newspapers purporting to show the two wounded soldiers, Alsheikh and Fink, recovering in hospital-type beds. Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen were believed to be holding the two prisoners.

Arad was originally captured by Amal, a more moderate group that receives backing from Syria. But reports suggested Amal security chief Mustafa Dirani defected to Hezbollah with the airman.

The four soldiers missing since 1982 are Sgt. Zachary Baumel, Sgt. Zvi Feldman, Cpl. Yehuda Katz, and Druse soldier Samir Assad. They were believed to be held by radical Palestinians.

U.N. sources said Berri never identified the bodies of the soldiers he was offering to trade.

The longest held of the 16 Western hostages is Terry A. Anderson, 42, chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press. He was kidnapped March 16, 1985.

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