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Copyright 1991 Reuters

August 25, 1991


BYLINE: By Jack Redden


Israel's chief hostage negotiator said he had firm evidence an airman missing in Lebanon for five years was alive but demanded proof of the fate of six other Israelis before joining a planned hostage exchange.

The comment by Uri Lubrani in an interview with NBC television shown on Sunday was the strongest statement yet of Israel's belief that Ron Arad, shot down over Lebanon in 1986, was still alive.

"We know that Ron Arad, the navigator, is in the hands of Iranians or Iranians controlled from Tehran," said Lubrani, the defence ministry official responsible for policy in Lebanon.

Pressed on whether Arad was definitely alive, he said firmly: "We have no doubt about it."

Lubrani, a master at operating in the shadowy area where espionage and diplomacy merge, would not explain how Israel knew Arad had survived his five years in captivity.

"But we have hard evidence that he is alive," Lubrani said in the interview taped last Thursday.

Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said on Saturday Israel was the main obstacle to a hostage swap. Israel has some 400 Lebanese prisoners, including Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a Shi'ite Moslem cleric it kidnapped two years ago as a bargaining chip.

Lebanese groups close to the pro-Iranian Hizbollah hold five Americans, two Britons and two Germans. Lebanese security sources say a missing Italian is believed to have been killed.

Of the seven missing Israelis, Arad was the only one known to have been in good health after his capture. He was held first by members of the Amal militia but Israel says a split in the group left him in Hizbollah control.

Yossi Fink and Rachamim al-Sheikh, ambushed while on an Israeli patrol in Lebanon in 1986, were purportedly shown in a picture released in Beirut but no proof of their survival was ever provided.

Samir Assad, a Druze Arab Israeli, was reported killed in an Israeli bombing raid after his capture in 1983 and there has been discussion only of recovering his body.

An Israeli tank crew -- Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman -- have not been heard of since a battle with Syrian forces early in Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Lubrani demanded "irrefutable evidence" on the fate of the missing Israelis before freeing its Lebanon prisoners.

"These boys have families, have friends, have comrades who might well be sent into battle tomorrow under similar conditions and they want to know that Israel is, will do whatever it can to get them back if, God forbid, they fall into captivity," Lubrani said.

Defence ministry spokesman Danny Naveh on Sunday reiterated Israeli demands for information on its missing servicemen before releasing its prisoners.

"Israel assumes that all the missing and captured soldiers are alive as long as it is not proven to the contrary," he said. "We await signs of life or evidence with regard to all of the soldiers missing and captured."

The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine has said it has the body of Israeli Druse Sgt. Samir Assad, who was captured near Sidon in April 1983. It says Assad was killed in a 1984 Israeli air raid on Rabbit Island off the Lebanese coast.

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