JERUSALEM — The Israeli army announced today that it has transferred 1,200 prisoners from its Ansar detention camp in southern Lebanon to Israel and will begin freeing 600 other prisoners from the mostly Shia Muslim camp population Wednesday.
The evacuation of the camp, set up three years ago originally to house Palestinian detainees, is part of Israel's speeded-up withdrawal from southern Lebanon, where Israeli soldiers have been the targets of increasing attacks by Shia guerrillas.
Israeli army radio said that 1,200 prisoners were spirited out of Lebanon to a detention center in Israel and that 600 others who have been cleared of "terrorist" activity will be freed to their villages in Lebanon starting Wednesday.
"We have opened talks with the Red Cross so that these more than 600 people will be released to the villages of their choice," Chief of Staff Gen. Moshe Levy said.
Better Conditions, Security
Levy said the 1,200 others have been transferred to Israel to provide better detention conditions and security. He said those still being held are guilty of serious actions against Israeli forces in Lebanon.
An Israeli camp officer said some prisoners had already been released.
"We have completed the dismantling of certain parts of the camp," Col. Yossi, the commandant, told reporters during a visit to the camp Sunday. "When we leave nothing will remain and tractors will be able to cultivate the land."
Set up almost three years ago on a rocky plateau above the village of Nabatiyeh in the first week of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the 10,000-square-yard facility originally housed more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Exchange With Syria
Those prisoners were freed in November, 1983, in a prisoner exchange with Syria.
The camp has since filled with 1,800 new prisoners, 75% of them Lebanese Shias who have waged a guerrilla war against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.
The prisoners were held incommunicado, not allowed to receive visits by family members. The International Red Cross was allowed in on an occasional basis but not regularly. There have been reports of mistreatment of prisoners.
"Ansar is the story of the war," said a veteran Israeli television journalist. "First it housed the Palestinians. Now the Shias."
North of Front Lines
The camp is 1.2 miles north of Israeli front lines at the Litani River, which is about 40 miles south of Beirut. The camp is to be evacuated in the second stage of Israeli withdrawal from the region. Prime Minister Shimon Peres has said he wants to speed up the pullout and complete it in eight to 10 weeks.
One area of the camp had been razed by Sunday, and trucks loaded with concertina wire waited for the 32-mile trip south to Israel. The prisoners watched from open-air barbed-wire compounds.
In opening the facility Sunday to journalists for the first time in 16 months, an Israeli camp officer would not let reporters speak to the prisoners.
The officer said 40% of the prisoners had been detained for attacking Israeli soldiers, 40% supported the attacks or engaged in propaganda, and 20% were known members of "hostile organizations."