Official: Israel Frees Five Lebanese Prisoners
Dec 29, 1999
By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel on Sunday released five Lebanese guerrilla prisoners held without trial, in an apparent confidence-building gesture ahead of scheduled peace talks with Syria and possible future negotiations with Lebanon.
``Israel released five Hizbollah members who were held in administrative detention,'' Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office said in a statement, using the official Israeli term for detention without trial.
A security source in Lebanon said Germany had brokered a deal to free the prisoners, members of the Iranian-backed Hizbollah group that is fighting to oust Israeli troops from a south Lebanon occupation zone.
Israel has pledged to pull its troops out of south Lebanon by July under future peace agreements it hopes to forge with Syria, the main powerbroker in Lebanon, and with the Beirut government.
A key question is whether Hizbollah will refrain from attacking Israel after a pullback. Israel's Channel Two TV quoted Israeli military sources as saying the prisoner release marked a new chapter in relations with Hizbollah.
The five men, including two bodyguards of Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid, a leader of the Islamic group who was abducted from his home in 1989 by Israeli commandos, were expected to arrive in Beirut around midnight (2200 GMT), the source said.
Israel Radio quoted Israeli military sources as saying the five were freed after a ``reassessment of the situation.'' Israel Television said the prisoners were put on a Lufthansa flight to Germany.
21 Lebanese Held Without Trial
Israeli and international human rights groups have said Israel is holding without trial up to 21 Lebanese -- some for as long as 10 years -- as bargaining chips for any possible future negotiations over four missing Israeli servicemen.
Three of the soldiers have been missing since Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. A fourth serviceman, air force navigator Ron Arad, was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and is believed by Israel to be the only one who may still be alive.
Syria and Israel resumed peace talks in Washington earlier this month after a 45-month deadlock amid Israeli calls for confidence-building measures to smooth the negotiations.
Both sides will reconvene on January 3 in the U.S. state of West Virginia. As a result of the talks, Lebanon hopes to start its own peace negotiations with Israel soon.
Earlier this week, Hizbollah and Israel arranged a two-day cease-fire in south Lebanon to allow Red Cross workers to remove the bodies of Hizbollah fighters killed in recent clashes on what is the last active war front in the Middle East.
Israel has controlled parts of Lebanon since 1978 and carved out the 15 km (nine mile) deep security zone in south Lebanon in 1985, saying it needed to protect northern Israel against potential cross-border attacks.
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