TEL AVIV (Jul. 4)
Israel released 300 Shiite Moslems from the Atlit detention camp yesterday and insisted — as it has repeatedly over the past two weeks — that there was no linkage to the release Sunday of 39 Americans held hostage for 17 days by Shiites in Beirut.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the release of the 300 was planned long before Lebanese Shiite extremists hijacked TWA Flight 847 on June 14 and took 39 of its passengers and officers hostage. He said they would have been freed much sooner were it not for the hijacking and an earlier incident in the south Lebanon security zone involving the Israel-backed South Lebanon Army (SLA) and Finnish soldiers of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
There were originally 766 Moslem prisoners at Atlit, all transferred there last April 2 when the Ansar detention camp maintained by the Israel Defense Force in south Lebanon was shut down. Israel freed 31 two weeks ago, a move widely seen as a gesture toward the TWA hijackers who were demanding the release of all Shiite prisoners — though Israel denied that was the case.
WORLD MEDIA CONVERGES ON ATLIT
After yesterday’s mass release, between 400-450 Lebanese remain in Atlit, most of them Shiites. Rabin said they would be freed over the next few weeks, depending upon the security situation in south Lebanon.
The world news media converged at Atlit yesterday to witness the release. Although reporters and TV camera crews almost matched the prisoners in numbers, only a small pool of correspondents was allowed inside the camp.
SHIITES CHANT ‘ALLAH IS GREAT’
The Shiites, dressed in track suits, sprinted from their tents to 10 waiting busses. First, however, they were individually checked by name by IDF officers and representatives of the International Red Cross. As they left the camp, the prisoners raised their bound hands and shouted to the reporters, “Allah is great, Allah will help Islam conquer.”
The busses, their windows covered with makeshift blinds, formed a long convoy heavily guarded by IDF and police jeeps and escorted by Red Cross ambulances. The Lebanese border was crossed at the Rosh Hanikra checkpoint. The prisoners were handed over to the Red Cross at Ras Bayda, on the northern perimeter of the south Lebanon security zone.
Freed prisoners whose homes are in the security zone may apply for permission to return there. Those living elsewhere in south Lebanon made their own way to their home villages.
The 400-450 prisoners still at Atlit are said to include a few Palestinians and seven members of the Shiite extremist organization, Hezbollah (Party of God) which was responsible for the TWA hijacking.
This group, it is believed, holds seven Americans and possibly two French and one British nationals kidnapped in Beirut during the past 15 months. The Americans were not included in the hostage release. Observers here suggested that Israel would free the Hezbollah men only after the American and European kidnap victims are returned to their homes.