Senior government ministers seem embarrassed in the aftermath of a prisoner-for-hostages swap over the weekend that freed a Palestinian terrorist convicted of murdering a Jewish child in Antwerp 10 years ago.
Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens passed off as a coincidence the simultaneous release of Said Nasser from Leuven Prison near Brussels and the freeing of four members of the Houtekins family, who were turned over to Belgian authorities in Cairo on Saturday, after more than three years in captivity.
Nasser, said to belong to the Abu Nidal terrorist group, was swiftly removed from Belgium and reportedly also landed in Cairo.
The Jewish community is outraged by the deal, which the news media reported months ago to be pending.
The Foreign Ministry had declined comment in August when a Beirut newspaper reported on an impending exchange. The newspaper had reported that the four members of the Houtekins family would be freed after “final bargaining” between the Belgian government and the Abu Nidal group.
Prime Minister Wilfried Martens denied in a television interview Sunday that there had been negotiations.
Martens said he was aware of how the Jewish community must feel, saying, “This is really hard for me.”
Eyskens admitted that it was not a “very glorious” episode but refused to answer questions. He told reporters at a news conference here Sunday that “certain aspects of this affair must remain confidential.”
The Israeli ambassador to Belgium, Avi Primor, declined to comment directly on the case. “We consider it a Belgian question,” he said. But the envoy said any exchange of a murderer for hostages could not be a balanced transaction.
A LIBVAN PLOT FROM THE START?
Justice Minister Melchior Wathelet said he understands the Jewish community’s concerns, but added that the Belgian authorities had the choice of sending four hostages to their deaths or freeing the prisoner, who was in any event eligible for parole under Belgian law.
Nasser was convicted of the June 1980 grenade attack on a bus outside the Agudat Israel office in Antwerp that was boarding Jewish youngsters for a religious summer camp.
David Kohane, 14, from France was killed and several other boys were wounded.
Nasser got a life sentence, which in Belgium is automatically commuted to 30 years. The prisoner became eligible for parole in July 1990 after serving a third of his sentence.
The four Houtekinses and four other members of their yachtng party who were previously released were reportedly kidnapped in November 1987 off the Libyan coast and held in Lebanon by the Abu Nidal group, also known as Fatah Revolutionary Council.
But according to news reports here, which cited Arab sources, the idea of seizing the passengers for the release of terrorists imprisoned in the West — including Nasser — originated with Ibrahim el-Bishari, former head of the Libyan secret police and currently foreign minister.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.