Lebanese Militia Chief Renews Offer to Swap Israeli for Arabs

Associated Press

Muslim militia leader Nabih Berri on Tuesday renewed his offer to trade a captured Israeli airman for 400 Arabs held by Israel, and he urged an extremist group in Lebanon to free three kidnaped Americans and an Indian as part of the deal.

In other developments, President Amin Gemayel received a proposal of political reforms that Muslim leaders say will help end Lebanon's 12-year-old civil war, and Italy reportedly reopened its embassy in West Beirut.

Addressing a news conference at his home, Berri renewed his trade offer and urged a group called Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine to free four teachers seized Jan. 21 on the campus of Beirut University College.

Ready for Swap

"We are prepared for the swap through the International Committee of the Red Cross as soon as the four captives are released," said Berri, who is the Lebanese justice minister and leads the mainstream Shia Muslim militia Amal.

The four abducted from the college are Robert Polhill, 53, of New York City; Alan Steen, 47, a native of Boston who had taught at two California state universities; Jesse Turner, 39, of Boise, Ida., and Mithileshwar Singh, 60, a native of India who has resident alien status in the United States.

The kidnapers offered last month to exchange them for 400 Arab prisoners in Israeli jails. Israel refused, and the captors withdrew the offer after extending a deadline to kill them "until further notice."

Berri's militia holds the Israeli, the navigator of a fighter-bomber shot down by Palestinian guerrillas during an Oct. 16 raid in southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, government radio said Ambassador Antonio Mancini notified Interior Minister Abdallah Rassi that the Italian Embassy in Muslim West Beirut resumed operations Tuesday. Embassy spokesmen were not reachable for verification.

The Italians would be the first to return to their embassy since about 7,000 Syrian soldiers moved into West Beirut on Feb. 22 in an effort to end a weeklong factional battle and years of lawlessness.

All Western nations except Greece had pulled their diplomats out of West Beirut and most foreigners had left because of kidnapings, killings and territorial fights among militias. Twenty-six foreigners kidnaped in the past two years, including eight Americans, still are missing.

Gemayel's emissary, Hani Salam, returned from Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday with the outline of a Muslim plan for political reform, a presidential palace spokesman said.

"The president will study the blueprint and consult with other Christian leaders to formulate a unified Christian stand," he said.

No official version of the proposals has been revealed, but Lebanese media say they would change the constitution to give Muslims more political power by reducing the powers of the president, who traditionally is a Maronite Catholic.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World