TEL AVIV (Nov. 15)
A Red Gross plane landed 26 wounded Israeli prisoners of war at Lod Airport this morning marking the start of the long awaited POW exchange between Israel and Egypt. Shortly afterwards 44 wounded Egyptian POWs arrived at the airport in ambulances and were placed aboard a Red Cross plane for Cairo. By late afternoon more than 300 Egyptian POWs had been returned to Egypt. At the same time other elements in yesterday’s agreement were also implemented today. The United Nations Emergency Force soldiers took over two checkpoints on the Cairo-Suez road and the first UN supervised convoy entered the town of Suez with supplies of food, water and medicines. An informal meeting was held at kilometer 101 between Israeli and Egyptian officers to discuss further ways of implementing the agreement to stabilize the cease-fire.
(In Washington, the State Department said today it was “very encouraged” by the exchange of POWs and termed it an “important step” towards stabilizing the cease-fire along the Suez front. “Just about what we had been hoping has happened,” said Department spokesman George Vest. It was a “happy omen,” he said, that Egyptians and Israelis were able to work together to meet the problems in the area and said it was also an “essential beginning” which may lead to a lasting peace.)
The POW agreement, announced yesterday, sent a wave of joy through Israelis, particularly those families with a loved one in Egyptian hands. Families and friends of returning POWs jammed the airport today even though they knew they would get no more than a glimpse of the returning men. Of the first 26 to land, 10 were stretcher cases and the rest ambulatory. All were taken to Sheba Hospital where they were reunited with their families later in the day. The POW exchange is expected to take a week, mainly because of the large number of Egyptian prisoners. Israel is returning 8143 to Egypt, Cairo submitted a list of no more than 238 Israeli POWs. including nine who were captured more than three years ago during the war of attrition that preceded the Aug. 1970 cease-fire. The nine are scheduled to be returned to Israel tomorrow. Among the Egyptian POWs that were returned today were those captured during the war of attrition operations, including the action at Shadwan Island.
The number of Israeli POWs acknowledged by Egypt is surprisingly low and fear was expressed here that many of the missing men-believed to have been taken prisoner may be dead. Their fate may be determined by mixed teams of Red Cross, medical and religious personnel of both sides who will undertake the grim task of searching the battlefield for bodies under terms of the Israeli-Egyptian agreement. The families of some missing men were at Lod Airport this morning hoping that by some miracle their sons or husbands would be among the returnees even though their names were not reported. The bitter disappointment of those families contrasted with the tears of joy that flowed and a chorus of cheers when a loved one was recognized. When the first Red Cross transport from Cairo landed there was tense silence until the doors were opened and the first wounded began to disembark. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Chief of Staff Gen. David Elazar and Mrs. Nina Katzir, wife of President Ephraim Katzir, were there to greet the returnees. Dayan disappeared inside the plane to shake hands with the men.
The ambulatory wounded came down first, some leaning on crutches or canes, heads wreathed, in bandages, smiles on their faces. Women soldiers handed each man a bouquet and placed bouquets on the chests of the more seriously wounded who were strapped to stretchers. All of the men were placed in ambulances and whisked away to the hospital as the crowds shouted and applauded. Dayan told reporters at the airport that “finally we are getting somewhere, now that we are negotiating instead of fighting.”
Meanwhile, at the Shmuel Harofe Hospital, the first wounded Egyptian POWs were preparing to leave. They wore green pajamas and were placed on stretchers and covered with blankets. To each blanket hospital attendants pinned a medical history of the man-containing details of his injury, the treatment he received and the results of X-rays and other tests. The Egyptians were a happy-looking lot. They showered the Israeli hospital staff with thanks and praise for the treatment they had received. Not so happy were the Syrian POWs who have no idea how long they will remain prisoners. The Syrian government has not agreed to an exchange with Israel and to date has failed to submit the names of Israeli POWs.