Israel Was Prepared to Swap Shiite Prisoners for Hostages

Shortly before a pro-Iranian group announced Monday that it had hanged U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins, Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin expressed Israel’s willingness to exchange Shiite prisoners in Israel for hostages in Lebanon.

Rabin said Israel would consider releasing all Shiite prisoners and detainees, including Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, in exchange for all hostages held by Shiite groups in Lebanon, including Higgins.

Three Israeli soldiers are known to be held hostage in Lebanon and four others are missing. There are also 21 citizens of other countries missing, 17 of whom are known to be held by Shiites.

Rabin stressed that the exchange offer was made on Israel’s own initiative, without outside pressure. He said the exchange could take place through the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has facilitated previous prisoner swaps.

The defense minister said that such an exchange was one of two methods that could be used by Israel and other countries to effect the return of their hostages.

NO PROOF VIDEO IS AUTHENTIC

Rabin said he would prefer a rescue operation similar to the one Israel successfully pulled off in July 1976 at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. But he said that option would endanger the lives of Israelis and other nationals being held hostage, and for this reason, Israel was prepared for prisoner exchange negotiations.

Foreign Minister Moshe Arens said Monday that Israel had decided on the capture of Obeid Friday in full knowledge of the risks involved.

He described the Shiite Hezbollah organization as “fanatics and well-known liars,” indicating his belief that the Marine colonel had been killed by his captors some time ago.

Radio stations in Lebanon also expressed doubts that Higgins had been hanged Monday morning, as announced by his captors, the Organization of the Oppressed on Earth.

By Monday evening here, there was no confirmation of the announcement that Higgins was hanged or whether a videotape said to show him dead was authentic.

The tape, sent to a news agency in Lebanon and then distributed worldwide, showed a man hanging by a rope from a ceiling, with his legs bound and a cloth covering his mouth.

It was impossible to establish whether the body was indeed that of the Marine colonel or when the poor-quality tape had been made.

Sources in the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon said the recording was not proof that Higgins was killed Monday, especially in view of unconfirmed reports that he had been killed while trying to escape a year ago.

They suggested that if the body was not handed over to UNIFIL within a day or so, this could be proof that he had been killed earlier.

The UNIFIL spokesman at Nakoura in southern Lebanon said there was considerable nervousness among U.N. peacekeeping forces, with whom Higgins had been serving when kidnapped 18 months ago.

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