Israel Hands Over 51 Prisoners, 9 Bodies in Move Linked to Hostage Crisis
ROSH HANIKRA, Israel (AP) _ Israel, saying it sought to speed the release of Western hostages in Lebanon, today freed 51 Lebanese prisoners and turned over the bodies of nine Muslim guerrillas after receiving definitive word that one of its missing servicemen was dead.
Israel tied its actions to U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar’s efforts to secure an overall swap to win the release of the 11 Western hostages held in Lebanon by pro-Iranian terrorist groups. Perez de Cuellar held talks with Iranian officials today in Tehran.
A deal to free the Western hostages is considered likely to involve the release of Israel’s servicemen missing in Lebanon or proof that they are dead, and the freeing of some Arab detainees, as demanded by the kidnappers.
Israel said it believed its ″humanitarian gesture″ would ″facilitate the secretary-general’s efforts to resolve the problem of the Western hostages.″
″We all hope this is the beginning of a process which will end with the solution, once and for all, of the tragic problem of our POWs and MIAs and of the Western hostages,″ Israel’s chief hostage negotiator, Uri Lubrani, told a news conference in Tel Aviv.
Lubrani also said he hoped the fate of another missing Israeli would be resolved ″in the coming days.″ Israeli news reports hae said Israel may allow a Palestinian exile to come home in return for information on a Druse soldier kidnapped in Lebanon in 1983.
The Israeli military said in a statement that the 51 prisoners were freed today from Khiam jail in Israeli-controlled South Lebanon, which is run by the South Lebanon Army, Israel’s militia ally. Israeli authorities have said 250 to 300 prisoners were held in the jail.
In addition, Israel holds other prisoners whose release is demanded by the hostage holders, including Shiite Muslim cleric Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, who was kidnapped by Israeli commandos in 1989.
The South Lebanon Army commander, Col. Antoine Lahad, said on the SLA-run Voice of the South radio station that the prisoner release was made for ″humanitarian reasons and as proof of our willingness to make a gesture.″
He said it was hoped the move ″will get a response from the parties involved - those holding some of our soldiers and some of the Israeli soldiers.″
The SLA radio said the prisoners, who included five women, were handed over to representatives of the Lebanese Red Cross after their release.
In its military communique, Israel said it acted after receiving ″irrefutable evidence″ that serviceman Rahamim Alsheikh, missing in Lebanon since 1986, was dead.
Alsheikh was 20 when he was captured Feb. 17, 1986, in a Lebanese guerrilla ambush in the security zone in south Lebanon. Captured with him was another Israeli soldier, Yossi Fink, who was also 20.
″The available information is insufficient to establish satisfactorily his (Fink’s) fate and efforts to obtain further conclusive evidence continues,″ the army statement said. The word on Alsheikh’s fate leaves six Israeli servicemen missing.
In Rosh Haayin, a suburb of Tel Aviv, the blinds were down at the Alsheikh home and the family refused to talk with reporters. A neighbor, Sarah Tzadok, told Israel radio that Alsheikh ″was a wonderful boy,″ bursting into tears as she spoke about him.
In addition to releasing the 51 detainees, Israel also ″decided to return to Lebanon nine corpses of Hezbollah terrorists buried in Israel,″ the statement said. Hezbollah is the umbrella organization for Islamic groups believed to be holding the Western hostages and at least some of the missing Israeli servicemen.
At the Rosh Hanikra checkpoint on the Israel-Lebanon border, the bodies arrived in pine wood coffins aboard three Israeli army trucks. Each coffin was carried by four Israeli soldiers to the checkpoint on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean.
The bodies were received by members of the International Committee of the Red Cross, assisted by members of the Lebanese Red Cross, and were to be turned over to the families for burial.
Five of the bodies were those of guerrillas were killed on April 18, 1987, in one of the bloodiest clashes recorded in Israeli-controlled south Lebanon. Eighteen guerrillas were killed in the fighting, the army said at the time.
The moves came one month after Perez de Cuellar emerged as a mediator in the hostage crisis and Israel came under pressure to ease his mission by releasing prisoners.
Perez de Cuellar, who met today with top Iranian officials, said beforehand that if Iranian officials wanted to raise the hostage problem he would be ″only too happy to listen.″
Israel said it ″has full confidence in the secretary general’s endeavors to bring this tragic affair to an end, and expects more progress in the near future.″ It said Perez de Cuellar’s efforts ″are in progress at this very moment.″
The 11 missing Westerners include five Americans, three Britons, two Germans and an Italian. The longest-held is American Terry Anderson, chief Middle East correspondent for The Associated Press, who was kidnapped in March 1985.
British television journalist John McCarthy, released Aug. 8, delivered a letter from the captors to Perez de Cuellar requesting that the U.N. chief mediate a swap. Three days later, American writer Edward Tracy was freed in Beirut.