TEL AVIV (Jun. 28)
The first prisoner-of-war exchange in 10 years between Israel and Syria took place today in the deserted town of Kuneitra in the Syrian sector of the Golan Heights, under the auspices of the International Red Cross. There was no direct contact between Israelis and Syrians.
Six Israeli prisoners held by the Syrians for up to two years were exchanged for 291 Syrian POWs and 20 others, mostly Golan Heights Druze. In addition, the bodies of five Israeli soldiers, three of them unidentified, were exchanged for the bodies of 72 Syrian soldiers killed in the fighting in Lebanon.
The exchange was the result of many months of quiet negotiations, conducted mainly by the IRC and other international bodies. The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem expressed its appreciation today to the Red Cross and to United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar whose recent visit to the Middle East is credited with helping to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion. Israel also thanked the U.S. and France for their roles in arranging the exchange.
Three of the freed Israelis were military prisoners — Air Force pilot Gil Fogel, tank commander Aryeh Liberman and Yohannan Allon, driver of a water tank truck. The others were civilians — Nahum Nesher, Shmuel Roza and Eran Florentin — staff members of the Israeli liaison office near Beirut who were captured by the Syrians last May I while on a sightseeing trip.
Two of the bodies returned were identified as the remains of Aharon Katz and Zohar Lifshitz. The unidentified dead were said to be Israeli soldiers whose bodies were exhumed from the Jewish cemetery in Damascus.
Four other Israeli soldiers remain in captivity, but not by the Syrians. They are prisoners of two dissident factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization — Nayef Hawatmeh’s Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. A Red Cross spokesman said the IRC has not yet been allowed to visit them.
Arab affairs experts here speculated that Syria agreed to the exchange at the time because of internal problems stemming from the illness of President Hafez Assad. The return of Syrian POWs during the Moslem holy month of Ramadan is expected to strengthen Assad’s political position, the experts said.
DENY LINK TO ELECTION
Israeli officials dismissed claims in some quarters that the exchange was timed to benefit Likud in next month’s Knesset elections. They noted that the negotiations had been going on for months and it was not Israel which determined the date of the exchange. Likud leaders said the return of the Israelis would not be used for election campaign purposes.
An IRC spokesman in Geneva, Jean-Jacques Kurtz, confirmed that after months of negotiations “only two weeks ago did it become apparent that the Syrians were at last about to agree to a POW exchange.”
The 20 non-Syrians freed by Israel included prisoners who have been serving sentences of up to 10 years for security offenses. Seven of the Druze elected to go to Syria rather than remain in the Golan Heights under Israeli occupation.
The exchange took place on the outskirts of Kuneitra which was largely destroyed during the 1967 Six-Day War and left in ruins after the Yom Kippur War in 1973. It was handed back to Syria under terms of the 1974 disengagement agreement but was not rebuilt and none of its former residents ever returned.
The coffins bearing the remains of fallen Israeli and Syrian soldiers were the first to be carried across the 100 meter wide no-mans-land outside the town. They were followed by the six Israelis walking toward their own lines and the Syrians who crossed the no-mans-land in batches of several score at a time.
Some of the Syrian POWs were amputees who had been fitted with artificial limbs in Israeli hospitals.