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Israel Expresses Cautious Optimism for Release of Pows Held in Lebanon

Government officials here are cautiously optimistic that Israelis held captive by an Islamic terrorist organization could be freed in a prisoner exchange.

But there is admittedly no proof that more than one of two Israelis reportedly held by the Lebanese group Hezbollah, or Party of God, is even alive. And there is no information about the fate of five Israelis captured by various other groups controlled by the fundamentalist group.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens, addressing a symposium on Iraq held Sunday at Haifa University, said there is room for a certain degree of optimism, when asked to comment on a report in Sunday’s New York Times that Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah had reached agreement in principle over two Israelis held by that group.

The report, which came from Beirut, said Hezbollah and Israel reached agreement in principle Friday to exchange prisoners of war, and that such a move could also spell freedom for American and other Western hostages held in Lebanon.

The various factions that have taken credit for the kidnappings of six Americans, three Britons, two Germans and one Italian are believed to be controlled by Hezbollah.

Hopes for a prisoner exchange arose anew last week when Hezbollah’s new leader, Sheik Abbas Musawi, said the group is ready to free Israelis it holds if Arabs held in Israeli prisons are exchanged for them.

“In recent months, we have heard for the first time, here and there, talk of the possibility of a readiness to arrive at an arrangement with us,” Arens said Sunday. “We are willing to do a lot to achieve this.”

Defense Ministry spokesman Danny Naveh said later, “First we must get some sign of life” from the Israeli prisoners.

WILLING TO RELEASE SHEIK

Given such encouragement, Israel would be willing to negotiate an exchange involving all Lebanese prisoners held by Israel, including the release of Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a Hezbollah spiritual leader whom Israeli commandos seized from his home in southern Lebanon in July 1989 and spirited to Israel.

The Times report said that four Israelis who were captured during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 were killed and that the Palestine Liberation Organization holds their bodies.

It also said that two Israelis were captured in 1986 by Hezbollah in the southern Lebanon security zone and that one of the two was seriously wounded and is believed to have died.

Defense Ministry sources point out that Hezbollah, in hints dropped about a possible exchange, has referred only to two Israelis held by the group, and has made no mention of five Israelis captured by other groups.

A lawyer serving Arens in matters of prisoner exchanges said Monday that Israel would like to have precise information about the prisoners referred to in the Times report.

“For the time being, we have had no sign of life and no proof,” the attorney, Orri Slonim, said in an Israel Radio interview.

He declined to comment directly on the Times report and would not confirm any agreement between Israel and Hezbollah.

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