Hostage Talks Yield No Word Yet About Fate of the Missing Israelis

After weeks of negotiations and diplomatic missions aimed at bringing about a release of Western hostages from Lebanon, Israel is still waiting for new information about the fate of seven Israel Defense Force servicemen long missing in Lebanon.

Until Israel receives such information, it will not consider freeing any Lebanese or Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Western hostages, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir reiterated Tuesday.

Shamir, who spoke to reporters at Ben-Gurion Airport before leaving on a visit to Bulgaria, did not seem to share the guarded optimism expressed this week by U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who has been trying for the past month to broker a hostage exchange.

In Geneva, Perez de Cuellar said Monday that while he could not predict how soon any detainees would be released, “things are moving and moving at a good pace.”

“We are pleased to note the secretary-general’s optimistic mood, and I hope he has good news. But we have not heard it yet,” Shamir replied Tuesday.

He added that Israel is in “close contact” with the United Nations on this matter and that Jerusalem would know more in a few days.

Perez de Cuellar’s personal representative in the hostage situation, Giandomenico Picco, just spent a week in Israel conferring with local officials and has reported to the secretary-general in Geneva. Neither would discuss what transpired.

In Lebanon, Minister of State Nabih Berri was quoted as saying that the Shi’ite Amal militia, which he heads, is holding the remains of two of the Israeli servicemen.

‘IRANIANS KNOW THE ISRAELI POSITION’

But Israel must free 28 women prisoners before the International Red Cross would be allowed to inspect the corpses, Berri said. It was unclear which women he was referring to.

Sources here assumed he meant women held prisoner by the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army, including one who tried to assassinate SLA Commander Gen. Antoine Lahad several years ago.

They are believed to be held in El-Khiam prison in the southern Lebanon security zone.

Danny Naveh, media adviser to Defense Minister Moshe Arens, said Tuesday that without a precise check of the two bodies, Berri’s statement is just another in a long series of uncorroborated statements made in Lebanon recently.

He said Berri has claimed in the past that Amal had the bodies of Israeli servicemen, obtained from Al Fatah, the main faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Berri has been told repeatedly that proper identification of the bodies is a precondition to any negotiations, Naveh said.

Meanwhile, Iran’s U.N. ambassador, Kamal Kharrazi, said Monday that the missing Israeli soldiers are prisoners of war whose fate is not linked to the Western hostages and is not a factor in negotiations for their release.

Kharrazi, who made his remarks to the Beirut daily A-Safir, met with Perez de Cuellar in Geneva on Tuesday.

The secretary-general said afterward: “So far, I consider that we have been successful, but I have to be very careful in my statements.”

Asked if the Iranians accept the Israeli position that no detainees will be released before tangible proof is provided about the fate of their missing soldiers, he replied, “The Iranians know the Israeli position, and there is no angry reaction on their part.”

Perez de Cuellar was to meet Wednesday with the president of the International Red Cross, Cornelio Sommaruga. A Red Cross spokesman said there has been no breakthrough yet in Red Cross efforts to visit the hostages.

The Islamic Jihad, which holds at least two American hostages, freed British journalist John McCarthy on Aug. 8 with a letter to the U.N. secretary-general proposing further swaps of hostages for Arabs detained by Israel.

Lebanese groups close to the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, an organization of Shi’ite fundamentalists in southern Lebanon, are holding five Americans, two Britons and two Germans.

Israel holds close to 400 Lebanese and Palestinians in prison camps in Israel and the southern Lebanese security zone.

(JTA correspondent Tamar Levy in Geneva contributed to this report.)

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