Hezbollah agents are freed by Israel
December 27 1999 MIDDLE EAST
Times of London
FROM ROSS DUNN IN JERUSALEM
ISRAEL last night released five Lebanese prisoners, known to be Hezbollah agents, held as bargaining chips in talks over Israeli soldiers missing in action.
The unexpected move came hours after an Israeli government minister predicted that the promised withdrawal of troops from south Lebanon could go ahead in April, three months earlier than planned.
Zvi Rish, a lawyer who represents 19 Lebanese in Israeli jails, said the five had been flown to Germany, from where they would catch a connecting flight to Beirut today. In Lebanon, a member of the militant Islamic guerrilla movement said the release was the result of German diplomatic efforts and would include other prisoners, some kidnapped by Israeli troops more than ten years ago. It was not clear, however, whether any Israeli servicemen would be freed in return.Three Israeli soldiers have been missing since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and are presumed dead. An air force navigator, Ron Arad, shot down over Lebanon in 1986, is believed to be alive.
Israel's decision to release the detainees will be applauded by human rights groups which have condemned the holding of prisoners for long periods without trial. But the action appears to have been motivated more out of concern by Israel to boost confidence in talks with Syria.
Last night Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, pledged, as part of a negotiated prisoner release, to free Palestinians who have killed Israelis. Previous Governments have refused to free such prisoners.
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