TEL AVIV (Dec. 1)
As reports were circulating that terrorist groups in Lebanon were about to free another American hostage, the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army on Sunday released 25 Arab prisoners who had been held in E1-Khiam detention center in southern Lebanon.
The request for the prisoners’ release was made by U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, whose personal envoy, Giandomenico Picco, was back in the region this weekend, giving rise to expectations that at least one and perhaps all three remaining U.S. hostages would be released this week.
The request for the Arab prisoners’ release was given to the Israeli team that is negotiating for the return of Israeli prisoners of war, their bodies or information on their fate.
Israeli team member Uri Slonim, an attorney, told Israel Radio on Sunday that the Lebanese detainees had been released even though no new information had been obtained about Capt. Ron Arad, an air force navigator who is the only missing Israeli servicemen believed to be alive, or about three other Israeli soldiers who are feared dead but still listed as missing in action.
The Lebanese prisoners were released as a measure of personal respect for Perez de Cuellar and his efforts to achieve the release of the Israelis and members of the SLA held hostage.
A statement release Sunday by Israel’s Defense Ministry read, “The secretary-general, on his part, relayed a request to Israel for a personal gesture toward him, which would assist him in concluding the processes related to the comprehensive realization of his initiative.
“Israel complied with his request and, following this, the SLA — with the encouragement of Israel — released 25 Lebanese detainees from E1-Khiam prison.”
CICIPPIO COULD BE NEXT
The prisoners, mostly members of the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, or Party of God, were released by the SLA commander, Gen. Antoine Lehad.
Four of the freed detainees — two men and two women — chose to return to their homes inside the border security zone Israel maintains in southern Lebanon, where E1-Khiam is located.
The remaining 21, whose homes in Lebanon are outside the zone, were escorted by Israel Defense Force and SLA troops to the border between the zone and the rest of Lebanon. There they were handed over to officials of the International Red Cross.
In Beirut, the group that calls itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization said U.S. hostage Joseph Cicippio would be released within 48 hours and that his release would be followed shortly thereafter by that of Alann Steen, another American.
The West’s longest-held hostage in Lebanon, Associated Press correspondent Terry Anderson, would reportedly be freed by the end of December. In fact, Syria is expecting all three U.S. hostages freed within a week.
A source in Damascus was reported Sunday to have said that Israel’s release of the 25 detainees heralds the way for the release of all hostages and prisoners held by Shi’ite groups.
Perez de Cuellar, who is due to end his term of office at the end of this month, hopes to effect the release of all Israeli prisoners and Western hostages before he turns his post over to his successor, Boutros Ghali of Egypt.
Perez de Cuellar’s envoy met Sunday in Damascus with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa, handing him a letter of thanks for Syria’s assistance in helping obtain the release of Western hostages.