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Copyright 1991 The Jerusalem Report
The Jerusalem Report

April 18, 1991

HEADLINE: No Deal On Hostages

BYLINE: Eric Silver

The latest round of on-again, off-again Lebanese hostage negotiations collapsed early this month because the United States refused to pay an exorbitant ransom demanded by Iran, whose Shi'ite proteges hold most of the 13 Western captives. The failure once again dashed hopes for the release of seven missing Israeli servicemen.

Israel, according to sources in Tel Aviv, had been prepared to deal with hostage-takers or their Iranian and Syrian patrons. Lebanese Shi'ite prisoners held either in Israel or by the Israeli- sponsored South Lebanese Army were to have been released. "What mattered," one source says, "was to get the guys home."

Of the seven, two army conscripts, Yosef Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh, and an air force navigator, Ron Arad were captured by Shi'ite militiamen. Three others - Zvi Feldman, Zechariah Baumel and Yehuda Katz - were taken prisoner during a tank battle with the Syrian army during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The seventh, a Druse sergeant, Samir Asad, was seized by a radical Palestinian group, who later claimed he had been killed during an Israeli air attack. Israel has no hard information on how many of the seven are still alive.

Israel is believed to be holding about 40 Lebanese security prisoners. They include Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, who was abducted by helicopter-borne commandos in July 1989, as a bargaining chip for the missing Israelis. Sheikh Obeid, a village preacher, was said to be a key figure in the Hizballah militia in southern Lebanon.

The South Lebanese Army is reported to be holding nearly 300 Shi'ite militiamen in its El Khiam prison, northeast of the Israeli border. Israel was understood to be interested in trading its own and/or the SLA prisoners, so long as the missing Israelis were part of a package. It was not, however, ready to include Palestinian detainees.

The Israelis believe that most of the Western hostages and their own surviving servicemen are held in areas of Lebanon controlled by the Syrian army. President Hafiz al-Asad, it is said, was interested in fostering a deal to enhance the international respectability he earned by joining the anti-Iraqi coalition. But he was not ready to risk plunging Lebanon back into turmoil by using force to free the hostages.

In the end, everything hinged on Teheran. The ayatollahs overbid their hand. The Bush Administration would not pay.

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