Israeli Officials Mute on Reports Sheik May Be Swapped for Hostages

Israeli officials are refusing to comment on persistent media reports that Israel is involved in negotiations for the release of Western hostages held by Palestinian or Islamic fundamentalist groups in Lebanon.

Most of the reports center on the possibility that Israel, prodded by the United States, may free Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid in exchange for Western hostages.

Obeid, a religious leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, was seized from his home in southern Lebanon by Israeli commandos last July 28. He remains incarcerated in an unidentified Israeli prison.

Most observers believe he was brought here so that Israel could bargain for the release of three soldiers captured by a Palestinian terrorist group in Lebanon more than three years ago.

Obeid is not likely to be freed for Western hostages if the Israeli soldiers are not included in the swap, sources here say.

Other reports say Israel has informed Iran it would allow members of Obeid’s family to visit him in prison if the International Red Cross is allowed to visit the Israeli soldiers in Lebanon.

Reports of prisoner swaps gained credibility after the release this week of an American hostage, Robert Polhill, who was held captive in Lebanon since January 1987.

Polhill was held by a group called Islamic Holy War for the Liberation of Palestine. There are still 17 Western hostages in the hands of such groups, including seven Americans.

The London newspaper The Independent published a report from Beirut on Tuesday saying that several hundred Shi’ite Moslems, held prisoner by the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army in the Khiam detention camp in southern Lebanon, were about to be freed as part of the American hostage exchange.

But the SLA commander, Gen. Antoine Lehad, told Shi’ite dignitaries in southern Lebanon on Tuesday that no prisoners would be released.

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