Hostage Talks Advance As Israel Frees Arab Prisoners
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) _ U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar appeared to make headway today in efforts to negotiate the release of Western hostages when Israel freed 51 Arab prisoners demanded by pro-Iranian groups.
As Perez de Cuellar met with top Iranian officials, the Israeli military said the Arab prisoners were freed in recognition of the U.N. chief’s work to secure a broad-based deal that would include the 11 Western hostages.
Pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim radicals had insisted that no more Western hostages would be freed until Israel released some of its nearly 375 Arab prisoners in south Lebanon and Israel. The prisoners freed today did not include Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, a leader of Shiite group Hezbollah, who was kidnapped by Israeli authorities in 1989 as a bargaining chip.
Israel said it freed the 51 Arab prisoners held by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army after receiving confirmation that an Israeli serviceman missing in Lebanon was dead. The Israeli military communique said the Jewish state also returned to Lebanon the bodies of nine Arab guerrillas.
Israel said the release was a gesture to encourage Lebanese groups to free Western hostages and account for seven missing Israeli servicemen. Israel has sought proof of the whereabouts of the servicemen or their remains.
U.N. spokesman Francois Giuliani said Perez de Cuellar was ″very pleased ... and very encouraged″ by the prisoner release.
″He will now redouble his efforts to find a solution to the problems of all hostages, detainees and missing persons,″ said Giuliani at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Yossi Olmert, an Israeli government spokesman, said today’s developments could be seen as ″a move toward release of all those innocent hostages″ from Israel and Western nations. ″I’m sure we’re on the right track,″ he added.
The South Lebanon Army commander, Col. Antoine Lahad, told the Voice of South Lebanon radio: ″We took this initiative for humanitarian reasons and as proof of our willingness to make a gesture, hoping that such an initiative will get a response from the parties involved - those holding some of our soldiers and some of the Israeli soldiers.″
″We hope they will do the same as we did for humanitarian reasons, and we hope that our initiative will help Perez de Cuellar to succeed in his attempts to release all the POWs and the innocent kidnap victims, who were kidnapped in recent years,″ Lahad said.
In Washington, the Bush administration called Israel’s release of prisoners a ″positive step″ that could help resolve the Mideast hostage situation.
But State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, ″we have no information about an imminent release of hostages.″
Perez de Cuellar’s two-day visit included talks with President Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has urged an end to the hostage crisis.
He also planned today to meet with families of Iranians missing in Lebanon. Iran has linked the fate of the Western hostages to concrete information of four Iranians kidnapped by Christian-backed Phalangist forces in June 1982.
After arriving in Tehran on Tuesday, the secretary-general said his visit to Iran will deal primarily with issues related to the U.N. cease-fire resolution that ended the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, and other regional issues.
But Perez de Cuellar also said if Iranian officials wanted to raise the hostage problem he would be ″only too happy to listen.″
″The Iranians are helping me, but they do not hold the key,″ he said.
The Western hostages 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.
Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency said Perez de Cuellar thanked Iran for previous efforts to free the Westerners.
″He reiterated that different groups are involved in the hostage issue and that the problem must be solved through these groups,″ the news agency said.
In a statement in Paris on Monday, the U.N. chief said he would seek Iranian help in freeing the hostages.
″By that, I don’t wish to say that the Iranians are responsible, but even so they have influences which could be useful for me in trying to resolve the problem of the Western hostages, as well as the detainees held in south Lebanon and missing people on the Israeli side,″ he said.
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 the swap of the Westerners for the Arab prisoners held by Israel and its allies. Three days later, American writer Edward Tracy was freed in Beirut.
Israel has insisted that it obtain reliable word on the status of seven Israeli servicemen, some of whom have been missing in Lebanon since 1982, before details of a swap could be arranged. It is not clear how many of the Israelis are still alive, or who holds them.