Israel Foresees Arduous Negotiations with Shiite Militia over the Return of a Downed Israeli Airman

One of two Israel Air Force flyers who bailed out of their Phantom jet over south Lebanon last Thursday is being held by the Shiite militia, Amal, and Israel anticipates long and difficult negotiations for his release.

This was indicated by Amal leader Nabih Berri in Beirut who confirmed Tuesday that the Israeli airman was in Amal’s hands. Israeli authorities earlier discounted Amal claims that he was their prisoner because they offered no proof by way of personal details or photographs. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin said earlier Tuesday that there was no official confirmation of who held the flyer.

But Berri’s statement was accepted here, and with some degree of relief inasmuch as Amal, the mainstream Shiite military organization in Lebanon, is moderate in contrast to the Iranian-inspired Hezbullah and other extremist Shiite groups. Berri is Minister of Justice in the Lebanese government.

The Israeli prisoner was the Phantom’s navigator. Its pilot, who also bailed out, was rescued by an Israel Air Force helicopter. Israel claims the plane crashed because of a malfunction that caused bombs in its undercarriage to explode. Reports from Lebanon said it was shot down while taking part in a bombing raid on an El Fatah base east of Tyre.

Berri did not say that Amal will hold the Israeli to bargain for the release of Amal or other Shiites held prisoner by Israel or by the Israel-backed South lebanon Army (SLA). But he hinted as much at a Beirut press conference Tuesday when he referred to Shiite, including young women, in the Khiam detention camp run by the SLA in south Lebanon.

Berri was quoted as saying that before negotiations for the Israeli flyer could begin, “Israel must first free Lebanon.”

Lebanon affairs experts here said Tuesday that while Berri is chiefly interested in freeing Amal prisoners held by Israel or the SLA, his position as Justice Minister would force him to demand the release as well of non-Amal members, including Hezbullah and possibly even Palestinians, to demonstrate that he is active in the interests of all Arabs.

Israeli officials observed that Berri has now assumed responsibility for the airman’s safety and well-being and Israel would hold him to it.

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