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Copyright 1991 Jerusalem Post
Jerusalem Post

June 26, 1991


BYLINE: David Rudge; [Bradley Burston adds]

A prisoner exchange planned for last week was called off because of leaks to the press, according to news agency reports, quoting Red Cross officials in Geneva.

A Red Cross source was quoted as saying that it appeared to have been a major operation that would have involved foreign hostages, believed to be held by Shi'ite extremists affiliated to the Hizbullah, IDF servicemen missing in Lebanon, and prisoners and detainees held by Israel.

According to the reports, the planned exchange had been agreed in secret talks in which representatives from Israel, Iran, the U.S. and the Soviet Union participated.

There have been several signs in the past month that a "package deal" might be in the offing, despite the complexities of the situation.

The first indication occurred at the end of last month when Sheikh Abbas Musawi, newly-elected leader of the pro-Iranian Hizbullah, offered to exchange Israelis held by his organization in return for Lebanese held by Israel.

He later clarified the terms, saying the Hizbullah also expected Israel to free Palestinian prisoners, as well as Lebanese.

Meanwhile the Hizbullah's mentor, Iran, has reiterated its willingness to act as a "mediator" to facilitate an exchange of prisoners.

Iran is anxious to re-establish ties with western countries, and to seek the release of billions of dollars worth of assets which have been frozen by the U.S., pending a soltuion to the hostage crisis.

Recently, a number of large U.S. companies were given government approval to purchase Iranian oil, a sign that the freeze might be coming to an end.

The Hizullah and its affiliated groups are believed to be holding 12 foreign hostages in Lebanon: six Americans, three Britons, two Germans and an Italian. Seven Israeli soldiers are missing in Lebanon or believed to be held as prisoners. Three went missing during the Sultan Ya'acub tank battle with Syrian troops in the early days of the Lebanon War. A year later, in 1983, Druse soldier Samir Assad was captured in Lebanon by members of Naif Hawatmeh's Palestinian terror group.

Two Givati brigade soldiers were captured by Hizbullah terrorist in an ambush inside the security zone in south Lebanon in February 1986. The seventh missing Israeli, IAF navigator Ron Arad, was captured by members of the Amal Shi'ite movement after ejecting from his plane over Lebanon. He was later reportedly handed over to members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, who work with the Hizbullah in Lebanon.

With the exception of photographs and documents sent to the family of Arad, nothing has been heard officially about the other Israelis since they went missing, despite repeated requests by Israel and international bodies to allow visits by Red Cross representatives.

In the meantime, the Hizbullah itself is being put under pressure from the families of Shi'ites detained by Israel, including regional Hizbullah leader Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, who was snatched from his south Lebanese home by IDF paratroopers in July 1989.

Israel has offered to allow the Red Cross to visit Obeid if, simultaneously, reciprocal visits were made by members of the international organization to Israeli servicemen believed held by the Hizbullah.

Significantly, no detainees were released from the El Khiyam jail inside the security zone in south Lebanon this year, unlike "goodwill gestures" in previous years to mark the Moslem Id al-Adha festival.

Bradley Burston adds:
Military sources refused to comment directly on the report, stating that they had "heard of no such offers" of an imminent prisoner exchange or release.

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