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Copyright 1996 The Jerusalem Post
The Jerusalem Post

July 22, 1996



The remains of Yosef Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh were finally brought home yesterday in lead coffins aboard a German air force plane, in what German and Israeli officials hope is a first step toward the return of more missing Israeli servicemen.

"We definitely see in these negotiations an encouraging signal for future releases," said Ya'acov Perry, the government's adviser on MIAs, who was deeply involved in the three-month-long negotiations to bring the remains of sergeants Fink and Alsheikh home for burial.

The secret negotiations were headed by Bernd Schmidbauer, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's top intelligence adviser. Schmidbauer later told reporters in Jerusalem the negotiations had been "particularly difficult" and nearly collapsed more than once.

The MIA-prisoner exchange began early yesterday, when Hizbullah presented the remains to Schmidbauer, who flew with them to Israel. As this was happening, the International Committee of the Red Cross dispatched a bus and 18 trucks to south Lebanon to collect 45 Hizbullah prisoners and 141 coffins containing the remains of Hizbullah gunmen killed in clashes with the IDF over the past decade. Seventeen South Lebanese Army prisoners were also freed by Hizbullah.

The German C-130 transport plane touched down at the military air base at Lod at 10:39, after flying from Beirut via Larnaca, Cyprus. As the plane rolled to a halt, a platoon of purple-bereted soldiers from the Givati Brigade, in which Fink and Alsheikh's served, lined up in formation behind the plane as command cars drove up to receive their coffins. Schmidbauer and Perry waited on the tarmac as an IDF forklift pulled out the two lead coffins, each inside a large steel container.

The coffins were removed, draped in Israeli flags, and carried onto the waiting command cars as Chief IDF Chaplain Maj.-Gen. Gad Navon recited psalms.

No family members came to the air base. Perry was joined by Yossi Ginossar, his predecessor and another former head of the General Security Service, and Shabtai Shavit, the recently retired head of the Mossad, who was also involved in the deal. Attorney Uri Slonim, who as government adviser on MIAs in 1991 brought verification of the deaths of Fink and Alsheikh, also came to see the circle closed.

From the air base, the coffins, each flanked by an honor guard of six Givati sergeants, were taken to Sheba Hospital at Tel Hashomer, where their remains were positively identified, setting in motion the final stages of the prisoner release.

The IDF announced that Fink will be buried at 5 p.m. in the military section of the Ra'anana Cemetery and Alsheikh will be buried two hours later at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl Military Cemetery.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu thanked the Germans for mediating the exchange and promised to continue efforts to bring missing Israeli servicemen home. He said he hoped the exchange indicated a change in Hizbullah's attitude toward Israel.

"Whether it is a change of policy or the larger question of Hizbullah attacks against the north of Israel and our soldiers in Lebanon, I think it is a bit premature to say now," he said.

Still, Netanyahu hinted that Israel may take on a more open-minded view of its presence in south Lebanon.

"Our policy is constant. We have no territorial claims whatsoever in Lebanon," Netanyahu said. "We are there merely to protect the northern part of our country. If that need is removed we will not be in southern Lebanon." Alluding to Israel's disagreement with Germany's controversial relationship with Iran, Netanyahu said humanitarian quests override any political differences.

"Unfortunately there are many conflicts between governments, but as we seek a better world, a world without conflicts, we should remember that this principle of returning MIAs and POWs should transcend any policy differences," Netanyahu said.

"This is not a moment of joy, but a sense of relief at best. But mostly this is a moment of pain," Netanyahu added.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said returning the bodies of Fink and Alsheikh was "paying off a debt" to their families.

"I want to thank all those who dealt with this humanitarian issue, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iran," Mordechai said. "We will continue, and not for one moment will the issue of the MIAs and POWs fall from our agenda, until the rest of our people are brought back."

Perry said Israeli intelligence had until recently linked a deal with Hizbullah to information on IAF navigator Ron Arad. But he said Israel decided to cut a separate deal for the bodies of Fink and Alsheikh after Hizbullah modified its demands by not insisting Israel release Sheikh Abdul-Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, prominent Shi'ite officials captured by Israeli commandos as bargaining chips for information.

"In order to bring back our POWs and MIAs we will work with anyone ... even the devil," Perry said.

Schmidbauer said yesterday he plans to visit with the Arad family while he is here, but refused to divulge what message he is bringing to them.

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