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Israel to Release 31 Shiite Prisoners, but Denies It is Linked to Demands of Hijackers

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Israel said today it will release 31 Shiite Moslem prisoners but insisted that move is in no way linked to the demands by the hijackers of TWA Flight 847 to release all 766 Shiites in the Atlit detention camp in exchange for 40 American hostages being held in Beirut.

Both Israel and the U.S. reaffirmed at the same time their joint position to make no concessions to terrorists.

Premier Shimon Peres informed Secretary of State George Shultz by telephone at 9 a.m. local time (2:30 a.m. Washington time) of Israel’s decision. He spoke to Shultz before the weekly Cabinet meeting where, it is understood, a majority of the ministers strongly favored flexibility on Israel’s part because of growing restiveness in American public opinion as the hostage crisis continues.

U.S. POLICY SUPPORTED

Peres issued a formal Cabinet statement “supporting the U.S. policy of not surrendering to terrorism” and expressing “concern and sympathy for the victims of the hijack. ” The statement “rejected the attempt to find non-existent splits in Israel’s position on this matter.” Cabinet Secretary Yossi Beilin said later that Peres and Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin were entirely “in accord”.

It was Rabin, who made public Israel’s decision to release 31 Shiite prisoners, during an appearance on the CBS-TV “Face the Nation” program today. He too stressed that “it is not linked whatsoever to the problem the U.S. and Israel and the whole world are facing with the hostages in Beirut.”

He added that Israel had not been asked by the U.S. to release any prisoners. “This is an Israeli decision to follow what we are bound to do by law,” he said.

BERRI SPOKESMAN REJECTS RELEASE

He explained that there is an appeal process to which every “administrative detainee” in Israel’s hands has access. The Shiite prisoners, guerrillas captured in south Lebanon, are not prisoners of war nor have they been charged, tried or convicted of any crimes. Their capture was a consequence of attacks on the Israel Defense Force while it was in the process of withdrawing from south Lebanon. Israel has said it intended to free them when the security situation in south Lebanon was stabilized.

Israel’s announcement brought a prompt negative response from a spokesman for Nabih Berri, leader of the Shiite militia Amal, who has been acting as a go-between in the hostage crisis. The spokesman said none of the hostages would be released.

Informed sources here said today that Israel will release Shiite prisoners in small batches over a period of time regardless of whether American hostages are freed. But, according to the sources, a point will come when the U.S. government will indicate to Israel it wants the release stopped so that some Shiites remain in Israeli hands, apparently to exchange for hostages.

For the present, both Israel and the U.S. will continue to describe the releases as unconnected with the hijack. Officially they are part of Israel’s ongoing repatriation of Lebanese nationals detained for a variety of reasons.

Shultz told reporters in Washington today that “Israel will have to decide for itself what it wishes to do about these prisoners.” He reiterated there was no linkage to the American hostages. He refused to discuss what military plans if any the Administration has to rescue the hostages.

The Administration continued to stand tough. The White House released a statement today saying no concessions will be made to the hijackers.

An International Red Cross spokesman said today he expected the 31 Shiite prisoners to be freed tomorrow on the coast road between the Israel border and Tyre, in Lebanon.

It is not known how many of the 766 detainees at Atlit have made use of the appeals process Rabin spoke of. Informed sources said that those who did do not comprise a majority of the detainees. The appeal board is chaired by a district court judge. Army officers on the panel include at least one with legal training. Applicants usually speak for themselves before the board and the IDF position is presented by a representative of the Judge Advocate-General’s Office.

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