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Copyright 1994 Reuters, Limited
Reuters World Service

February 10, 1994


BYLINE: By Nadim Ladki


A breakthrough is imminent in secret talks focusing on the fate of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad and hundreds of Arab prisoners, a senior pro-Iranian source said on Thursday.

''Secret talks regarding the issue of Arad and Arab prisoners are currently underway between more than three parties,'' the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

''I expect a breakthrough in the issue of Arad soon,'' the source said, adding: ''There will be something in return.''

The source declined to name the parties that were involved in the talks or the location but other sources said such talks would definitely include the pro-Iranian Hizbollah group, Iran, Syria and possibly the United States.

Arad, a navigator, is the only one of six Israeli servicemen missing in Lebanon believed to be alive. Senior pro-Iranian sources in Lebanon said in the past Arad, whose plane was shot down over south Lebanon in 1986, was in Syrian hands.

Israel says he is held by Hizbollah or Iran.

Hizbollah (Party of God) has repeatedly offered to exchange the remains of two Israeli soldiers for about 250 Lebanese held by Israel and its client militia the South Lebanon Army.

The captives Israel holds include Hizbollah cleric Sheikh Abdul-Karim Obeid, kidnapped in south Lebanon by Israeli forces in 1989.

Hizbollah refused last December to cooperate with a U.S. congressional team seeking information on the missing Israelis, saying it was ready only to discuss the issue with a neutral party who was also interested in the fate of Arab prisoners.

Syrian President Hafez al-Assad undertook in early December to help the congressional team in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher in Damascus.

The team visited Israel, Syria and Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley last month. It held talks with Israeli and Syrian officials in Jerusalem and Damascus, and visited the battle site in the Bekaa where three Israeli soldiers disappeared in 1982.

Syria, the main power broker in Lebanon, has good relations with Hizbollah and the movement has said Damascus was capable of acting as a mediator in the prisoners' issue.

A three-man tank crew has been missing since a battle with Syrian forces in the Bekaa valley in June 1982 during an Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

They are Sergeant Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman. They are widely believed to have been killed in the battle and to have been buried at the site by Palestinian guerrillas.

Two other Israelis, Yossi Fink and Rachamim al-Sheikh, were captured by Hizbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon in 1986. Pro-Iranian sources say they are dead.

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