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News That an Israeli Mia is Dead May Pave Way for Hostage Releases

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Israel has learned definitively that one of its soldiers long missing in Lebanon, Pvt. Yossi Fink, is dead.

While the news came as a crushing blow to Fink’s family, it also raised hope that negotiations for the release of Western hostages in Lebanon would be accelerated after weeks of deadlock.

In the past, Israel has responded to receiving information about the fate of its missing soldiers by releasing Shi’ites or Palestinians detained by the Israel Defense Force or allied forces. Such releases have been reciprocated by the Lebanese groups holding Western hostages.

There were reports Sunday from Beirut that one Western hostage, perhaps an American, would be released in the next few days.

The information about Fink came from Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shi’ite fundamentalist group which two months ago confirmed the death of his IDF companion, Rachamim Alsheikh.

But Israel had regarded as inconclusive accompanying evidence that Fink was also dead and had continued to list Fink, an immigrant from Britain, as missing in action.

Fink and Alsheikh, members of the elite Givati Brigade, were abducted by Hezbollah gunmen after the convoy they were guarding in the southern Lebanon security zone was ambushed in February 1986.

The IDF spokesman who made the announcement Saturday night disclosed that information received subsequently from U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar is regarded as suitable evidence that Fink is no longer alive.

The information followed an unprecedented invitation extended Friday to the wife and daughter of one American hostage, Jesse Turner, to come to Lebanon to visit him for one hour.

That offer was made by Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine, another Shi’ite group that holds Western captives, and was accompanied by a photograph of Turner and another U.S. hostage, Alann Steen.

The group said the gesture was a reply to a humanitarian request from the United Nations.

ISRAEL OFFERS ‘MAXIMUM ASSISTANCE’

The U.N. secretary-general has served as a negotiator and conduit in exchanging information about hostages and prisoners in the Middle East.

In a statement Saturday night, the IDF said, “In the context of efforts exerted” by the U.N. secretary-general to “move forward in solving the case of Israeli MIAs and POWs, findings regarding the fate of MIA Joseph Fink have in recent days been transferred to Israel.

“The findings previously presented to Israel did not enable us to decisively determine his fate. Unfortunately, according to supplementary findings, it has been determined that Joseph Fink is not alive.”

The statement praised Perez de Cuellar, who “continues in his efforts to bring about further progress in the case of missing IDF” soldiers and those of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army.

The SLA’s leader, Gen. Antoine Lehad, disclosed in August that seven SLA soldiers are being held by terrorist groups in Lebanon.

Israel expressed its hopes that Perez de Cuellar’s “continued efforts will bring tangible progress and will lead to the transfer of POWs, MIAs and the bodies of deceased IDF soldiers to Israel as soon as possible.”

Israel offered the U.N. secretary-general “the maximum assistance necessary in order to enable future progress.”

The official death report on Fink was made to Fink’s parents by the chief military chaplain. The notification enabled them to begin shiva, the mourning period of seven days mandated by traditional Jewish law.

It was not revealed how Fink had died. But according to military sources, he and Alsheikh were seriously injured during their captivity.

Israel still awaits word of the whereabouts of air force navigator Ron Arad, who is believed to be alive and held in Iran.

Israel is also waiting for information about Sgt. Zacharia Baumel, Sgt. Zvi Feldman and Cpl. Yehuda Katz, three tank crewmen missing since a tank battle with the Syrians in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in 1982.

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