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Israel frees Lebanese prisoner

JERUSALEM, June 10 (JTA) — Israel has released a Lebanese prisoner it held for 15 years, raising speculation it was a goodwill gesture aimed at securing a swap for Israeli MIAs. Israel Radio reported that Mohammed Barzawi was handed over Monday to Red Cross officials at the Rosh Hanikra crossing into Lebanon. According to earlier reports, Barzawi was in poor health and his release was primarily a humanitarian gesture. Barzawi was captured during a Hezbollah attack on an Israeli army position in 1987. The Lebanese newspaper A-Safir reported Monday that a deal had been struck through German mediation for Barzawi’s release as part of a possible wider prisoner swap. Haim Avraham, the father of one of three Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah nearly two years ago, said before Barzawi’s release that Israeli officials had told him they were hoping to arrange a prisoner exchange. In October 2000, Hezbollah gunmen kidnapped Benny Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad from an area on the Israel-Lebanon border. A year after the soldiers were kidnapped, the Israeli army concluded on the basis of intelligence information that the three had died of wounds they sustained during their capture. Avraham’s sister, Efrat, was quoted by the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot as saying that she hoped that as a result of Barzawi’s release, “We will see my brother home, in whatever state he is. It is too bad it is happening now, and not two years ago.” There are at least four other Israeli soldiers who may still be held in Lebanon: • Last week, the government appointed a commission to investigate the case of missing air force navigator Ron Arad. Arad was captured by the Amal militia after bailing out during a mission over Lebanon in October 1986. Amal handed Arad to Hezbollah, which apparently gave him to Iran. Arad’s whereabouts have not been known for years, and it is not clear if he is still alive. • Three other MIAs, Zachariah Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, disappeared exactly 20 years ago — on June 11, 1982 — in the battle of Sultan Yakoub at the beginning of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. • A fifth Israeli, businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, is believed to have been kidnapped by Hezbollah while traveling to Europe in October 2000. His fate remains unknown.

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