mia2b.jpg (4487 bytes)

Copyright 1991
The New York Times

September 8, 1991


BYLINE: By PATRICK E. TYLER, Special to The New York Times


After hopes were raised last month by the release of two Western hostages, efforts to free the 10 still held by kidnappers in Lebanon have bogged down over the whereabouts of a captured Israeli navigator who is considered the linchpin to an overall settlement.

Lebanese kidnappers and their pro-Iranian sponsors have told the United Nations in recent weeks that the Israeli, Ron Arad, disappeared during an Israeli raid on Lebanon nearly two years ago. They say that he is "lost" and that no group acknowledges holding him.

But United Nations officials are highly skeptical of this account. They say they believe that Mr. Arad is still alive, and they have stepped up efforts to determine his whereabouts in hopes of meeting Israeli demands for a full accounting of seven missing servicemen in Lebanon. Of the seven, only Mr. Arad is widely believed to be still alive, although Israeli officials say they have given up on none of the men.

Kidnappers Offer an Exchange

Kidnappers holding Western hostages in Lebanon have indicated that they will let them go if Palestinian prisoners in Israel are set free. Israel says it is ready to go along, but first it wants a full accounting of its missing men; it says it does not respond to the release of Western hostages.

United Nations officials involved in the negotiations remain hopeful that Mr. Arad is in closely guarded captivity as one of the final human cards to be played in the leveraged exchange for Arab prisoners. Those Arabs include Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, the Shiite Muslim cleric who was kidnapped by Israel in a July 1989 commando raid on the tiny Lebanese village of Jibchit. As Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar of the United Nations prepares this weekend to travel to Teheran in a signal that the West supports Iran's emergence from a decade of revolutionary isolation, the status of Mr. Arad has become a potentially serious obstacle in diplomatic efforts to free the Westerners. Momentum gathered last month with the release of two Western hostages, John McCarthy and Edward A. Tracy.

Israel Radio last week reported that Mr. Arad had been "sold" by his Lebanese captors to Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces in Lebanon for $500,000. Iran's Foreign Ministry strongly denied the report.

[A Kuwaiti newspaper reported on Saturday that about four months ago Mr. Arad had been flown to a military camp near the Iranian holy city of Qom and was being held there, The Associated Press said.]

In an interview, Iran's delegate to the United Nations, Kamal Kharrazi, said that Mr. Arad's captor, the Shiite Amal organization, had been in control of Mr. Arad from the time he was captured in October 1986 until sometime in 1989. He said that Amal's shadowy security chief, Mustafa Dirani, had been Mr. Arad's jailer and that Mr. Dirani had reported that during an Israeli raid on his base in the Bekaa region of eastern Lebanon, Amal forces had left Mr. Arad secured but unattended and returned to find him missing.

Role of Pro-Iranian Groups

Referring to Mr. Dirani's account, the Iranian diplomat said, "His story is very strange, and eventually Amal has to answer what has happened to this Israeli." Lebanese political figures have speculated for some time that Mr. Dirani, although a member of the Syrian-backed Amal, is closely allied with officials in the pro-Iranian Party of God, the organization that wields the greatest influence over some of the kidnappers holding Western hostages.

Even if Mr. Dirani has lost control of Mr. Arad, the Israeli is likely to be in the hands of pro-Iranian groups that have responded to pressure from Teheran to work toward a settlement.

Mr. Dirani's ouster as Amal's security chief occurred after he was accused of collaborating with the Party of God and of engineering the abduction in southern Lebanon in 1988 of Lieut. Col. William R. Higgins of the United States Marines, who headed a United Nations truce observer unit, according to senior Amal officials interviewed in Beirut this week. A group calling itself the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth, believed to be affiliated with the Party of God, said in 1989 that it had killed Colonel Higgins.

The most recent chapter began on Aug. 8, when the Islamic Holy War organization, a Party of God affiliate that holds two Americans, Terry Anderson and Thomas Sutherland, issued a communique calling on Mr. Perez de Cuellar to negotiate the release of all hostages and of Arab prisoners held by Israel. Within a week of the communique, Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Tracy were released.

Israel quickly responded that it was willing to take part in an exchange, but only if it first got a detailed accounting of its servicemen.

A month later, with Mr. Arad unaccounted for, a deal to win the release of the 10 remaining Western hostages and nearly 400 Arab detainees held by Israel has stalled. But officials close to the negotiations continue to express confidence that a deal will emerge because all of the parties say they are ready for a comprehensive settlement.

A United Nations official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, said he remained hopeful that Israel might undertake a partial release of its Arab prisoners to keep the momentum going in the hopes that Mr. Arad and the remains of the other servicemen might finally be produced.

The official said that for two years, Mr. Perez de Cuellar had been seeking to arrange a comprehensive trade based on a first step in which Western hostages would be freed, to be followed by a reciprocal and partial release of Arab prisoners by Israel.

Mr. Kharrazi, who has been a key figure in shuttling between New York, Geneva and Teheran during the hostage negotiations, said Islamic Holy War and the other Lebanese groups holding hostages had made it clear that they would not provide more information on missing Israeli servicemen until Israel responded to the release of Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Tracy.

Meanwhile, a rough accounting of the six other Israeli servicemen is taking shape. From the public statements in Lebanon and private statements to United Nations officials, it appears that the bodies of two Israelis are in the hands of the Party of God.

Identification Given Privately

Officials of the group have privately identified the soldiers as Pvt. Yossi Fink and Pvt. Rahamin Alsheikh. The men were captured during a clash in February 1986, after which the Party of God announced publicly that one captured soldier was dead and the other critically wounded.

A third Israeli, Sgt. Samir Assad, captured in 1983 by a Palestinian guerrilla organization, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, was held prisoner at a base on Rabbit Island near the Lebanese coastal city of Tripoli when an Israeli air raid against the base resulted in his death, the guerrilla organization has said.

The Democratic Front, a component group of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has said it is willing to turn over the body as part of an exchange.

Three other Israelis have been missing since June 1982, when the Israeli Army invaded Lebanon in an attempt to expel P.L.O. forces from that country. They are Sgt. Zachary Baumel, Sgt. Zvi Feldman and Cpl. Yehuda Katz, who disappeared during a tank battle.

[ ICMIS Homepage ] [ The Soldiers' Stories ]

[ P.O.W. Chronology ] [ How You Can Help ] [ About ICMIS ]

[ Archive of Press Articles ] [ Laws & Conventions relating to P.O.W's ]