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Israel Returns Bodies to Lebanon

The hand-over of two Hezbollah militants' remains may signal a wider prisoner swap.

August 26, 2003|Henry Chu | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israel returned the bodies of two Hezbollah fighters to Lebanon on Monday, signaling that a deal might be imminent for a wider exchange of prisoners, including an Israeli businessman kidnapped three years ago.

The bodies of Ammar Hussein Hammoud and Ghassan Mohammed Zaatar were handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which brought their flag-draped coffins to an agreed-upon transfer point along the Israel-Lebanon border Monday afternoon. The two men were among the last Hezbollah members to die in operations against Israeli troops before the Jewish state withdrew its troops from southern Lebanon in May 2000 following a 22-year occupation.

Although the return of the bodies was described as a unilateral gesture by the Israeli government, the move came amid increased speculation that Israel and Hezbollah were close to agreeing on a prisoner swap. In the last two weeks, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, a militant Shiite Muslim group, has spoken publicly and confidently of the Germany-brokered negotiations now underway between the two sides to trade both captives and information about missing combatants.

In particular, Israel wants the return of Elhanan Tannenbaum, a businessman who was lured to Lebanon and abducted in October 2000, and three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah guerrillas days earlier. The Israeli government has also sought information on Ron Arad, an Israeli fighter pilot shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

In an apparent breakthrough in the Tannenbaum case, Israeli television Monday evening reported that the German mediator working with the two sides had been allowed to visit Tannenbaum -- the first outside confirmation that he was still alive. The report said he was in reasonable health.

Hezbollah has contended that Tannenbaum, a reserve officer in the Israeli military, was a spy, but his family has denied Tannenbaum was anything more than a businessman.

"It's too early to talk about a deal," his son, Uri Tannenbaum, told Israeli television. "We hope that this step will advance the effort to return my father. It's high time that he be released."

However, the three missing Israeli soldiers, who were taken by Hezbollah guerrillas after they rushed to the scene of a rocket bombardment along the Israel-Lebanon border, are widely believed to be dead. In an unusual move, the army's chief rabbi officially declared them dead two years ago after evidence surfaced that the men had been wounded by Hezbollah gunfire before being dragged off.

Hezbollah wants the release of some or all of the prisoners held by Israel -- believed to number more than a dozen -- as well as the repatriation of the remains of many Hezbollah fighters.

Of special concern to the organization are two guerrilla leaders, Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, who were kidnapped by Israeli commandos in 1989 and 1994, respectively.

Hammoud, whose body was returned Monday, died in a suicide attack on an Israeli military convoy in 1999, and Zaatar was killed in combat in 1998, Associated Press reported.

Talk of a prisoner swap comes despite heightened tension along the border between Israel and Lebanon, a flashpoint in the past but relatively quiet in recent months. Two weeks ago, mortars launched by Hezbollah guerrillas into northern Israel killed a 16-year-old, the first Israeli civilian to die in such an incident in three years.

Analysts say the militant group may be negotiating a prisoner exchange partially in response to pressure from the captives' families. In a departure from past practice, Hezbollah has reportedly dropped its demand that Palestinian prisoners be released in addition to its own guerrillas, a non-starter from Israel's point of view.

The last prisoner deal between Hezbollah and Israel -- a country the group vows to annihilate -- occurred five years ago. Then, Israel handed over the remains of 40 fighters from Hezbollah and other radical groups and released 60 Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the remains of a single soldier, Itamar Ilya, an Israeli naval commando who was killed during a raid in southern Lebanon.

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