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Israel Frees 31 Lebanese; Cabinet Rift Reported

Times Staff Writer

Israel released 31 Lebanese prisoners from its military detention center at Atlit on Monday amid reports that rightist Cabinet members had argued against the move as premature and as possibly appearing to be a capitulation to terrorism.

The detainees, who were turned over to the International Red Cross at Ras el Biyada, Lebanon, just north of the Israeli border, were among the more than 700 Lebanese prisoners whose freedom the hijackers of TWA Flight 847 have demanded as the price for releasing 40 American hostages held in Beirut.

According to a terse army announcement, the prisoners were freed for reasons that had nothing to do with the hijackers’ demands.

However, a senior government source commented: “You could say it’s an attempt to test the water. We want to see if the Shiites will reciprocate by releasing some of the hostages.”

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Not Told About Hostages

In Lebanon, the freed prisoners told reporters they had not heard about the hostage crisis.

“We didn’t know about the hijacking or any other kidnaping,” Karim Sakmani, 20, told the Associated Press. “We didn’t know we were being released until 7 this morning.”

Most of the men were bearded, with their hair clipped in prison haircuts. The detainees were transported in a yellow school bus from Ras el Biyada to Red Cross headquarters on a beach near the ruins of the ancient port at Tyre, where they scrambled out of the vehicle, knelt on the white sand and began traditional Islamic prayers.

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Lebanese Shia Muslim leader Nabih Berri said in an interview on U.S. television broadcast Sunday that no Americans will be freed until all the Atlit detainees are released. Berri, who is minister of justice in the Lebanese government, has assumed responsibility for negotiating on behalf of the hijackers, who are believed to belong to a radical Shia group.

735 Still in Custody

According to a senior Israeli defense source, 735 men captured in southern Lebanon remain at Atlit, on the Mediterranean coast, after Monday’s release. Of those, 544 are reportedly Shia Muslims, 147 are Palestinians and 44 are either Druze, Christians or Sunni Muslims.

Most of the prisoners held in Israel were captured by the army earlier this year during “Operation Iron Fist” raids against southern Lebanon villages suspected of aiding guerrilla attacks, most of them by Shias, against the withdrawing Israelis.

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Monday’s army announcement said Israel “will continue its policy of releasing detainees in accordance with the security situation in the area, as was stated when the detainees were transferred from Ansar (an abandoned southern Lebanese prison camp) to Israel on a temporary basis.”

26 Shias, 5 Sunnis

Regarding the 31 prisoners--26 Shia Muslims and five Sunni Muslims--released Monday, the army said, “Some of the detainees were released following completion of their interrogation by security forces, when it emerged that there was no room to continue their detention, while others were released by decision of the Appeals Board, which operates under law.”

On Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said nine of the 31 were being released by order of the Appeals Board, while the other 22 were to be freed because of insufficient evidence that they constituted security threats.

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Military sources Monday refused to disclose how many more appeals by Atlit detainees are pending before the board. To date, according to a senior defense source, the board has decided 246 such cases, with the civilian Israeli panel ruling for continued detention in 230 cases and freedom in only 16.

Late-Night Meeting

Despite official efforts to depict the release as independent of the hijacking, three powerful ministers from the rightist Likud bloc reportedly spoke against it during an “inner Cabinet” meeting that lasted four hours before breaking up in the early morning hours Monday.

The independent newspaper Hadashot reported Monday that the alternate premier and foreign minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and two former defense ministers--Ariel Sharon, now minister of trade and industry, and Moshe Arens, now a minister without portfolio--spoke against the release. The newspaper quoted sources close to the three Likud leaders as saying the action comes so soon after the hijackers’ demands that it will only invite more terrorism.

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Hadashot said Prime Minister Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Rabin, both leaders of the Labor alignment, defended the release.

Likud and Labor are the principle political groupings in Israel’s national unity coalition government.

Caution in Speaking

Cabinet ministers and lawmakers were cautious in their public comments on the hijacking crisis Monday, apparently hoping not to prejudice the situation.

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“The big danger here is that the hijack will drive a wedge between Israel and the United States,” said Deputy Prime Minister David Levy of Likud.

Israeli leaders have complained about what they see as subtle U.S. pressure on them to free all the Atlit detainees regardless of the cost to this country’s fight against terrorism. American officials, meanwhile, have complained that Israel is being uncooperative by its earlier insistence that Washington publicly request that the prisoners be freed as demanded by the hijackers.

The tension broke into the open last week in comments on U.S. television by Rabin, and both countries have moved since then to close ranks. Israel radio reported Monday night that “intensive contacts” on the hijacking were under way through the Israeli Embassy in Washington.


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