Congressional Group Prepares for Mideast Probe on Israeli Mias

Following up on Syrian President Hafez Assad’s recent pledge of cooperation, a U.S. congressional delegation will be heading to the Middle East next month to investigate the long-mysterious fate of six Israeli soldiers missing in action in Lebanon.

Plans for the delegation’s specific itinerary are being kept quiet here.

But a staffer from the House Foreign Affairs Committee said Monday that the delegation plans to travel to the region at some point between Jan. 1 and Jan. 25, when Congress returns for its new session.

The investigation could coincide with President Clinton’s meeting with the Syrian leader, scheduled for next month in Geneva.

The four-person delegation will be headed by Mike Van Dusen, chief of staff of the House committee, and will include a Foreign Service officer from the State Department’s Israel desk.

The delegation will look into the fates of six Israelis: Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, Zvi Feldman, Yossi Fink and Rachamim Alsheikh.

Arad is believed to have the best chance of being alive.

In addition to his pledge on the issue of Israeli MIAs, the Syrian president also vowed recently to issue travel documents by the end of the year to all the Jews living in Syria.

In an interview Tuesday with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), just back from the Middle East, said that both Assad and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa had said in meetings that the Jews would be allowed to leave by the end of the year.

There are now an estimated 1,350 Jews remaining in Syria, most of whom do not have permits to leave.

Specter, who said he discussed the Syrian Jews with Assad on three previous occasions as well, was part of a congressional delegation that also included Sens. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Rep. Bill Richardson (R-N.M.).

DeConcini, Graham and Richardson serve on congressional intelligence committees.

The delegation also visited Israel, Jordan and Egypt, where they met with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat.

Capitol Hill sources this week denied a published report in Israel that the delegation had met with radical Palestinians and Iranian-backed Muslim militants while in Syria.

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