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Captive Israelis Seen as Key to a Broader Deal

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The release of British hostage John McCarthy and the promise of freedom for an unnamed American captive followed months of secret negotiations aimed at a broader deal to free about 400 Westerners, Lebanese, Israelis and Iranians held in the Middle East.

The multiparty discussions to arrange a comprehensive hostage and prisoner release have reached an impasse, largely over the status of seven Israeli soldiers believed held in Lebanon, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.

It was the failure of that effort, however, that created the circumstances resulting in the limited release that was intended to increase international pressure on Israel to break the logjam.

Israel’s effort to locate and verify the condition of its seven soldiers, abducted in or shot down over Lebanon since Israel’s 1982 invasion of that country, is now considered the main obstacle to ending the entire hostage drama. Despite a flurry of optimism in the West, Israeli officials insist that a full swap is not imminent.

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The behind-the-scenes negotiations on the multiparty “no-deal deal"--so-called because its participants insist that they will make no concessions to terrorist demands--have included secret meetings involving Israeli, Iranian, Syrian and Lebanese officials and militia representatives, U.S. and Israeli sources say. The International Red Cross also has played a quiet role.

Although the framework of a multiparty swap has been on the table for more than a year, U.S. and Israeli officials say that the momentum picked up after the Persian Gulf War. During the early Middle East shuttles of Secretary of State James A. Baker III to discuss the peace process, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir asked Baker to relay a message to Syrian President Hafez Assad that Israel was ready to act.

A series of meetings in late spring and early summer often appeared close to bearing fruit, only to fail at the last moment, the sources said.

The elements of the “no-deal deal” include:

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* Release of all the Western hostages still held in Lebanon, now totaling 11.

* Release of about 375 Lebanese captives held by Israel or an Israeli-backed militia in southern Lebanon as well as a prominent Lebanese clergyman abducted by Israeli commandos.

* Release of the seven missing Israeli soldiers.

* Release of four Iranian diplomats abducted by a right-wing Christian militia in Lebanon.

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Several factors have complicated and delayed the deal. Up to six of the seven Israelis and all four Iranians are widely believed to be dead. Both Israel and Iran have demanded that the bodies be returned, but locating the remains reportedly has stalled movement on the deal.

“In the chaos of Lebanon, grave registration has not been a top priority,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official. Bodies of the more than 2,000 kidnaped Lebanese, for example, have often been dumped in ravines or unmarked mass graves.

Logistics and timing of the swap are also critical issues. Israel does not want to release the 375 captives until it can verify that the remains it receives in a deal are those of the missing Israeli soldiers. Israel also fears that it will be given bodies of others or animal remains. At the same time, groups holding the Western hostages have demanded that the 375 captives be freed before the last of the Western hostages are freed.

Further complicating the process is the fact that at least four different militia groups have claimed to hold the Israelis, although some of the captives reportedly have been passed from group to group.

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Three of the militias, which include Palestinian factions, have nothing to do with the Shiite Muslim extremists holding the Western hostages. They stand to gain little by releasing the Israelis or their bodies, especially since Israel has been reluctant to release any Lebanon-based Palestinian captives as part of the swap.

In recent months, the Israelis have backed down on terms for a broader trade-off. They are now prepared to let the International Red Cross or some other organization act on their behalf in getting access to their prisoners of war or, if they are dead, to their remains.

“Israel will be willing to do a lot for the release of our captives and missing, after we know something about them,” Shamir said Thursday. “But to my great regret, until now we don’t know anything that constitutes new tidings.”

The main Israeli focus is on the fate of Ron Arad, an air force navigator shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Of the seven missing troops, he is the only one believed to be alive.

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“The interest is clearly in Arad,” said an Israeli official. “You can draw your own conclusions about what that means about the rest of the missing.”

When Arad was shot down, he was captured by Amal, a Lebanese Shiite militia unrelated to the Hezbollah extremists holding the Western hostages. But he was reportedly later turned over to a Shiite extremist cell. Arad’s case is one of the reasons that Israel has made contact with Iran.

Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed group, is said to have held Israelis Yossi Fink and Rahamim Alsheikh, who were wounded and captured in a 1986 ambush in Lebanon. Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, the Shiite clergyman abducted by Israel, told Israeli officials under interrogation that both died of wounds suffered during their capture.

Three Israeli soldiers, Zvi Feldman, Zachary Baumel and Yehuda Katz, were captured in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley by Syrian troops in a tank battle during the 1982 invasion. They were paraded through the streets of Damascus aboard their captured tank, according to local press stories.

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All have alternately been reported in the hands of Saiqa, a small Syrian-backed Palestinian extremist group, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, another Syrian-sponsored group. Both organizations are outside the Palestine Liberation Organization umbrella. Damascus has never publicly acknowledged that the soldiers were captives, and they now are believed to be dead.

The final missing soldier, Samir Assad, was captured in 1983 near the Lebanese port city of Sidon. Assad was a member of the Druze, an offshoot sect of Islam. Druze soldiers are used sometimes by Israel to infiltrate Arab areas.

A year later, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a PLO faction, said that it had held Assad but claimed he died in an Israeli air raid on Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

Israeli officials have indicated that they will not be pressured into freeing Arab captives without getting their own back. “Were there to be such pressure, Israel would flatly reject it,” wrote Zeev Schiff, an influential defense expert, in the Haaretz newspaper. Ron Ben-Yishai, a defense columnist for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, predicted Friday that a hostage swap could still be “months” away.

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Wright reported from Washington and Williams reported from Jerusalem.

Israel and the Hostages

Islamic groups in Lebanon holding Western hostages are linking their release with freedom for prisoners of war held by Israel. Whom is Israel holding?

POWs. The South Lebanon Army, allied with Israel, holds more than 300 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners.

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THE SHEIK. Israel holds Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, who was kidnaped from Lebanon by Israeli troops as a bargaining chip in July, 1989.

MIAs. Israeli officials say no prisoners will be freed without release of seven Israeli servicemen missing in Lebanon since 1982 or a visit by the International Red Cross or the return of their remains. Israel believes at least one soldier remains alive.

Source: Associated Press


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