WASHINGTON (Sep. 1)
The head of a delegation of seven Congressmen who returned to Washington Monday after a tour of the Middle East said yesterday there are 11 Israeli prisoners of war in Lebanon, according to a briefing the group received from the International Red Cross (IRC) in Damascus.
Rep. William Lehman (D. Fla.) also reported that Israel claims there are four, not three, Israeli POWs held by Syria but that the Red Cross said its representatives had seen only three war prisoners last visited on July 15. Those POWs, the IRC reported, had no serious health problems and were getting packages from Israel.
Lehman said two other prisoners are being held by the “fanatical” Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, headed by George Habash. He said the two war prisoners had been checked by the IRC and one was found to be mentally ill and should be sent back to Israel.
The group also learned that six Israeli soldiers are being held in Tripoli by the Al Fatah, the largest group in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Lehman said the group was told that the six soldiers were visited recently by IRC representatives and found to be “in good shape.”
The six Representatives met with Syrian officials in Damascus but did not see President Hafez Assad who, they were told, was “in the mountains.”
NO REPLY TO ISRAEL’S EXCHANGE OFFER
Lehman said the IRC informed the group that the Syrians had not replied to an Israeli offer to exchange 300 Syrians for the three to four Israeli prisoners held by Syria. But, he said, the group had been told that “the Syrians are going to let the IRC exhume Israeli war dead and ship them back to Israel, after the bodies are medically identified as Israelis.”
Lehman said “the Syrians realize the negotiating value even unfortunately of dead Israeli soldiers.” That procedure, he said, was expected to take place within 30 days, depending on how the Syrian doctors respond. “IRC doctors in Geneva are waiting to fly to Damascus as soon as the grave sites are opened,” he said.
But Lehman also reported that “some progress” was being made in the form of negotiating an exchange of war prisoners. He said that while the Congressmen were in Beirut, they met with Lebanese President Am in Gemayel and chatted with U.S. marines in the multinational force, adding this was before “the tragedy” last Monday when two marines were killed during the intermittent exchanges of fire in the Beirut area.
Lehman said Lebanese officials think the Israelis may “dig in” after IDF forces withdraw to the Awali River and that the Syrians will not negotiate “until the Israelis are completely out” of Lebanon.
GROUP MET WITH BEGIN
The group met with Premier Menachem Begin, before his resignation announcement, and felt that “Begin looked quite ill but his frame of mind was positive and he was very informative. His parting words were basically that the United States was a dedicated ally of Israel and that Israel is a dedicated ally of the United States” and that this relationship must be continued, Lehman said.
Defense Minister Moshe Arens told the visiting Congressmen that he was concerned about projected cuts in Israel’s defense budget which he said would hamper research and development, specifically electronic warfare.
Lehman also told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the Congressmen found “lots of facts, most of them very complicated. But at least the PLO is not a factor in Lebanon at this time. Thank goodness, Begin at least accomplished that.”
All of the Congressmen are members of the subcommittee on foreign operations of the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for most of the United States foreign aid program, both military and economic. Lehman said the purpose of the mission was “to see where our dollars are going.”
The other six delegations members were Representatives Clarence Long (D. Md.), chairman; Charles Wilson (D. Tex.); Lawrence Coughlin (R. Pa.); John Porter (R. III.); Marty Russo (D. Ill.); and Richard Lehman (D. Cal.).