Israel, Hizbullah complete POW deal

Special to World
Sunday, January 25, 2004

TEL AVIV Israel and Hizbullah have completed a deal for a prisoner exchange.

Israeli officials said the deal would exchange the bodies of three Israeli soldiers and an abducted Israeli civilian for more than 400 Arabs and Palestinians. The deal would also include the release of Hizbullah commander Abdul Karim Obeid and operative Mustafa Dirani. Both were abducted by Israeli forces in the early 1990s in an attempt to win the release of captured Israeli air navigator Ron Arad.

"The decision for a prisoner exchange was not easy," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said on Sunday.

On Tuesday, the Israeli government plans to announce the names of the 435 prisoners to be released, officials said. Two days later, they said, the exchange would take place in Germany when Hizbullah returns the bodies of three Israeli soldiers killed in 2000.

At that point, Israel would release hundreds of Palestinian and Arab prisoners. They include 23 Lebanese prisoners as well as Moroccans, Sudanese, Syrians, Libyans and a Tunisian national. One of those expected to be released is Lebanese national Ali Biro, regarded as one of the leading drug dealers in the Middle East. Another Arab national was a member of the crew of the Karine-A weapons boat sent by Hizbullah to the Palestinian Authority in 2002.

Israel, in a move that required a Cabinet vote on Sunday, also plans to release Stephan Smyrek, a 31-year-old German national arrested by Israel and convicted in 1999 of helping Hizbullah plan a suicide operation. Smyrek was found not guilty of a charge that he had intended to carry out a suicide attack in 1997.

The deal caps more than two years of negotiations between Israel and Hizbullah under the mediation of Germany. The exchange was delayed since November 2003 by Israel's refusal to release a Lebanese national, Samir Kuntar, sentenced to life in prison for the killing of three civilians in an attack in Nahariya in 1979.

Israeli officials said Kuntar would be considered for release in March should the government receive information that determines the fate of Arad. They said none of the Arabs and Palestinians designated for release had been imprisoned for killing Israeli nationals.

So far, Hizbullah has not supplied information on the fate of Arad, captured in 1986 when his F-4 Phantom was shot down during a mission in southern Lebanon. Arad was held by Hizbullah in the late 1980s but the organization has denied that it knows his whereabouts.

"The arrangement specifies a mechanism for carrying out a further arrangement, the goal of which is to secure tangible information on the fate of captive navigator Ron Arad and return him to his home," an Israeli government statement said on Saturday. "According to this mechanism, Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar will be released after Israel receives concrete proof as to Ron Arad's fate."

The only Israeli being prepared for release in the Hizbullah deal is Elchanan Tanenbaum, a reserve colonel lured to Beirut in October 2000 where he was taken into Hizbullah custody. Officials said this was the first time Israel has agreed to exchange Arab prisoners for an abducted Israeli civilian.

The bodies that would be released by Hizbullah are those of three Israeli soldiers killed in an operation along the Israeli border in October 2000. Israel also pledged to relay maps of Israeli anti-personnel landmines in southern Lebanon.

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