GENEVA — Israel today swapped 1,150 prisoners--including some of its most notorious convicted terrorists--for three captured Israeli soldiers in an exchange supervised by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Kozo Okamoto, 37, one of three gunmen responsible for killing 26 civilians at Tel Aviv's Lod Airport in 1972, was among the prisoners freed.
The three Israeli soldiers are the last known to be in Arab hands since the Jewish state invaded Lebanon in 1982. They had been held by a Syrian-backed Palestinian group and were flown here from Damascus, the Syrian capital.
The exchange between Israel and the Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine was arranged by the Red Cross and involved daylong transcontinental shuttles spanning three continents.
A Palestinian spokesman said 397 prisoners flown to Geneva from Israel today for the exchange included Okamoto and Ziad abu Eian, a Palestinian extradited to Israel by the United States for a 1981 bombing that killed two people in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Okamoto was one of three Japanese Red Army gunmen who carried out the bloody 1972 airport attack. The other two guerrillas were killed by Israeli security forces, and Okamoto was captured and sentenced to life in prison.
The three Israeli soldiers involved in the exchange were identified as Hezi Shai, Yosef Groff and Nissim Shalem, all in their early 20s.
The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command said negotiations with Israel, conducted primarily by former Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky, took more than two years, with 1,300 hours of secret talks.
The organization said 605 prisoners would be handed over at an undisclosed location in Israel, another 153 would be turned over at Kuneitra on the Golan Heights, and the remaining 397 would be exchanged at Geneva airport.
One of the Israeli soldiers was swapped for a large group of Palestinians who were put on a plane bound for the Libyan capital of Tripoli. The actual exchange had to await confirmation from Red Cross delegates in Israel that 605 Palestinian prisoners had been freed there.
A second Israeli was to be released when the plane carrying the Palestinians from Geneva to Tripoli arrived in the Libyan capital.
The third Israeli soldier was to be freed upon confirmation of Israel's release of 153 Lebanese prisoners at Kuneitra in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the Syrian border.
Israel has traditionally been willing to swap large numbers of Arab prisoners for the return of its own captives, partly because of Jewish religious law that says that the community must make every effort to ensure the safe return of its members.