Israel on Wednesday released 300 of the Lebanese prisoners whose freedom the hijackers of TWA Flight 847 had demanded, but officials refused to comment on when more than 400 others still held might be liberated.
"It's almost sure there won't be any more releases this week," a senior defense source said. "Maybe next week."
Another defense source predicted that all the detainees, most of them Shia Muslims, will be back in Lebanon within two weeks.
The release of the 300 from a military detention center in the north of the country came just three days after the freeing of the last 39 American airliner hostages who had been held by Shia Muslim gunmen in Beirut. But Israeli officials insisted that Wednesday's action was not part of any deal with the hijackers.
Rabin Denies Connection
"There is no linkage between the release of the (American) hostages and our policy, which we continue to implement, to release these Lebanese detainees in accordance with the security developments in southern Lebanon," Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said.
Most of the Arab prisoners were captured earlier this year as part of "Operation Iron Fist" raids against Shia villages in southern Lebanon suspected of aiding guerrilla attacks against Israeli troops. They were transferred to a military detention facility at Atlit south of Haifa last April 2, when Israel evacuated its southern Lebanon prison facility at Ansar.
Wednesday's was the sixth such release of Atlit prisoners since April. Four of them predated the TWA hijacking.
As with earlier releases, the prisoners were turned over by Israel to the International Red Cross at Ras el Biyada, a checkpoint at the northern edge of what Israel terms its "security zone" in southern Lebanon. The checkpoint is on the coastal road six miles north of the international border.
Most Are Shias
Military sources said that most of the 300 detainees freed Wednesday are Shias, many of whom belong to the radical Hezbollah (Party of God) faction. In addition to Shias, Israel also holds Palestinians, Druze, Sunni Muslims and Christians at Atlit.
Israel radio reported that the prisoners did not learn that they were to be freed until Tuesday night and that the news touched off celebrations in the camp.
Reporters were allowed restricted access to the Atlit detention camp Wednesday to cover the release but were told they could not interview prisoners.
The detainees, mostly young and bearded, were loaded into nine red-and-white buses Wednesday morning for the nearly two-hour drive north to the border. There were two extra buses in the convoy in case of breakdowns, as well as three army jeeps, two police cars and an ambulance.
The exuberant prisoners wore track suits--either blue with white stripes or black with red stripes--and some clutched copies of the Koran as they boarded the buses. A few flashed V-for-victory signs, and some shouted "Allahu akbar!"-- Arabic for "God is great."
'A Shia Victory'
Israel radio reported that one prisoner was able to shout a few words through an open bus window. "I feel well, and I'm happy to be going back to Lebanon," the broadcast quoted him as saying. "We were well treated by the Israelis, but our release today is a Shia victory." Once the prisoners were loaded onto the buses, Israeli guards drew shades on the windows and closed the doors to prevent contact with reporters. The young men were bound but not blindfolded as their caravan pulled onto the coastal road heading north.
Journalists at Ras el Biyada reported that the freed prisoners were greeted by hundreds of well-wishers and relatives in flower-bedecked cars. In the reception committee were members of Amal, the principal Shia political and military movement in the south, whose leader, Nabih Berri, had negotiated on behalf of the TWA hijackers. Some of the Amal representatives had flowers in their rifle barrels.
At the crossing point, the prisoners were transferred from the Israeli buses to Red Cross vehicles and driven toward Tyre, Sidon and Beirut.