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Copyright 1991 Newspaper Publishing PLC
The Independent (London)

August 19, 1991

HEADLINE: Syria behind demands of radical Palestinian groups; Damascus is seeking to use negotiations for the release of Western and Israeli hostages to advance the cause of its client factions, writes Carol Berger


SYRIAN efforts to promote extremist Palestinian groups are suspected to be behind demands that thousands of Palestinians held in Israel be freed as part of a wider hostage release.

The demand came from Ahmed Jebril, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC), originally suspected of being responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. He said last week that 18,000 Palestinians should be exchanged for Western hostages in Lebanon.

In a two-hour interview at his Damascus headquarters last week, Mr Jebril stressed the importance of his group's role in the release of both Western captives and Israeli prisoners. Mr Jebril said not one but three Israelis missing in Lebanon were alive and held by ''revolutionary groups close to Hizbollah''. ''Without the Palestinians there will be no deal for the hostages,'' he added.

Mr Jebril's comments appear to up the ante for a negotiated release of captives held by Iranian-backed kidnappers in Lebanon. Last week he proposed a two-phase exchange: ''civilians'', Western hostages, would first be exchanged for Palestinians held in Israel; then military captives, Israeli PoWs, for Palestinians held by Israeli-backed militias in southern Lebanon.

A senior Syrian official had earlier told The Independent that the PFLP-GC held the key to the return of missing Israelis. His words were a further indication of the Syrian government's desire to see its Palestinian allies profit from the United Nation's negotations to free all captives. Damascus is home to several extremist Palestinian groups opposed to Yasser Arafat, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Mr Jebril's demands that thousands of Palestinians held by Israel be freed is unlikely to succeed. But the release of only a small number of Palestinians jailed for intifada offences would be a propaganda victory for his group. His claim to control the release of PoWs - directly or indirectly - is taken seriously. In May 1985 Israel exchanged 1,150 Arab prisoners for three Israelis held by the PFLP-GC.

As part of current negotiations, Mr Jebril said that he had met the Iranian Interior Minister, Abdullah Nouri, in Damascus, and Hizbollah leaders in Lebanon last week. Mr Jebril suggested that the PFLP-GC had reached an ''agreement'' with Hizbollah-linked groups in control of the Israeli PoWs on their conditional release.

Of the three Israelis he claimed are alive, he would name only one, the British-born navigator, Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Mr Jebril said he had conducted taped interviews with the prisoner.

When asked by journalists if they could hear those tapes, he said he would first require approval from those holding Mr Arad. ''I had lengthy discussions with the Israeli about the Old Testament and political affairs and ideology,'' Mr Jebril said. Of the two other Israelis he claimed to be alive, he said he had not personally seen them and refused to name them.

Of the seven Israelis listed as missing in Lebanon, two - Yossi Fink and Rahamin Alsheikh - were wounded and captured in a 1986 ambush. The Lebanese Shia cleric held by Israel, Sheikh Obeid, is reported to have told the Israelis that both died of injuries.

Three other Israeli soldiers, Zvi Feldman, Zachary Baumel and Yehuda Katz, were taken prisoner in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley by Syrian troops in a tank battle during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. They were later paraded through the streets of Damascus aboard their captured tank.

The Syrian-backed Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine claims to have the remains of the seventh man, an Israeli Druze, who was taken prisoner in 1983.

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