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Prisoner Swap Appears in the Cards Amid Talk of Imminent Israeli Gesture

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While Israel continues publicly to reject international pressure to release Shi’ite prisoners from jail unilaterally, a deal involving an exchange of prisoners for Western hostages appears to be in the works.

There were media reports Tuesday that Israel would free Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid on Saturday. Obeid, spiritual leader of one of the hostage-taking groups, was captured by Israeli commandos at his home in Lebanon in July 1989.

Western leaders believe that Obeid’s release, long sought by militant Shi’ites in Lebanon, could lead to the release of 10 Western hostages being held by Shi’ite groups in Lebanon.

The captors are also demanding that Israel free over 300 Shi’ite prisoners being held in a detention center in southern Lebanon.

Israel insists first on receiving information about the fate of its seven soldiers missing in Lebanon.

On that score, the Times of London quoted sources within the Hezbollah on Tuesday as claiming that two Israeli soldiers are alive and in the hands of the Shi’ite fundamentalist movement.

On Tuesday evening, the Cable News Network quoted Palestinian terrorist Ahmed Jabril as saying that three of the Israeli servicemen are alive, three are dead and one is unaccounted for.

In Geneva, U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar said Tuesday that he was optimistic a prisoner-for-hostages exchange would take place.

Perez de Cuellar was to hold a second round of talks Wednesday with Uri Lubrani, coordinator of Israeli affairs in Lebanon, and Yohanan Bein, head of the international organizations division of Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

The U.N. chief had met with the two Israelis on Sunday night. They then returned to Jerusalem for consultations.

PANEL REJECTS UNILATERAL RELEASE

Meanwhile, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee passed a strongly worded resolution Tuesday rejecting Western pressure for a unilateral gesture by Israel in the ongoing drama surrounding hostage releases.

The committee endorsed the government’s principled stand that Israel should not be called upon to make any move unless and until it receives firm information on the whereabouts or conditions of its missing servicemen in Lebanon.

The resolution was seen as furnishing a non-partisan rebuff to urgings by British Prime Minister John Major and other Western leaders that Israel release its Shi’ite prisoners, in wake of the recent release of Western hostages in Beirut.

The government’s official position remains that Israel is willing, indeed anxious, to contribute to an international prisoner swap, but only if its own MIAs are included.

But unofficial sources said Israel would soon free more than 300 Lebanese prisoners held by the allied South Lebanese Army at the E1-Khiam jail, just north of the Israeli-Lebanese border.

Observers said that the return of the Israeli delegation to Geneva was strong evidence that negotiations to bring about the release of Western hostages have already reached an advanced stage.

But the same observers cast doubt on the reports that Israel would free Sheik Obeid. The story was first carried by the Iranian News Agency, which cited reputedly reputable Moslem sources in Lebanon.

The French daily Le Monde also reported that Israel would free Obeid as part of a secret deal struck among the captors, the United States and Britain.

The non-partisan Israeli daily Hadashot, in an editorial Tuesday, called on the government to free “say 10 or 15 low-ranking detainees.” It said Israel could “afford” to make this gesture, given the numbers of detainees it is willing to release in a general exchange.

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