Israel and Sla Free Prisoners in Move to Spur Hostage Release

In a gesture that could facilitate the release of Western hostages from Lebanon, the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army on Wednesday freed 51 Hezbollah prisoners it had been holding in El Khiam detention camp.

Simultaneously, Israel handed over to Lebanon the bodies of nine Hezbollah militiamen who died in captivity in Israel and were buried there.

The gestures earned immediate praise from the White House. In Washington, presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said, “We think this is a positive step.”

The United States is hopeful, he added, that Wednesday’s release will “have ramifications that are helpful to the hostage situation.”

The State Department said it had no information on any other pending release. But Shi’ite sources in Lebanon were quoted as saying that more hostages could be released soon. Last month, the Islamic Jihad group freed hostages John McCarthy of Britain and Edward Tracy of the United States.

Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian Shi’ite Moslem fundamentalist group, has been waging guerrilla warfare on Israeli and SLA troops in southern Lebanon. It is believed to hold Westerners hostage or to have influence with groups that hold them.

Israel handed over the bodies at the Rosh Hanikra border-crossing point on the Lebanese coast.

INFORMATION FROM U.N. CHIEF

Uri Lubrani, coordinator of Israeli affairs in Lebanon, said Israel’s goodwill gesture followed receipt of information Tuesday from U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, who is in Teheran.

The U.N. chief has been talking with Hezbollah and other organizations about the fate of seven Israel Defense Force personnel long held in Lebanon, by either hostile Lebanese or Palestinian groups.

Israel wants them back, dead or alive, and Lubrani has been conducting negotiations, so far without much success.

Israel insists on accurate information about the condition and whereabouts of its men before it will consider the release of Arab prisoners in exchange for Western hostages.

Lubrani praised the activities of Perez de Cuellar. But he apparently has not been able to obtain details about the captive IDF soldiers.

The secretary-general was quoted as saying, “We are at the beginning of a process of releases and exchanges, but nothing is certain yet.”

Lubrani told a news conference here Wednesday that there is “credible evidence” that IDF soldier Rachamim Alsheikh is no longer alive, and his family has been so informed.

But Lubrani said the evidence is much less certain with respect to Yosef Fink, kidnapped in Lebanon along with Alsheikh in 1986. He said further investigation would be required.

(JTA correspondent Howard Rosenberg in Washington contributed to this report.)

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