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MIDDLE EAST: 5 HEZBOLLAH GUERRILLAS RELEASED BY ISRAEL

(27 Dec 1999) Arabic/Eng

Five Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim guerillas were hugged and cheered at Beirut's airport after they were released by Israel days before Mideast peace talks are to resume in the U-S.

Two of the men had been held by Israel for a decade in hopes they would be bartered for the release of captured Israeli servicemen.

An Israeli official told Israel T-V that there was "an atmosphere of compromise, there is an attempt to reach a peace agreement".

But a Hezbollah official said the men were Israeli "hostages" and denied a connection between their release and the resumption of Israeli-Syrian peace talks next month.

Israel's surprise release was greeted with delight by their lawyer.

The move was seen as a sign of a possible change of relations with Lebanon.

Zvi Rish, who has campaigned relentlessly for the release of 19 Hezbollah guerrillas held in Israeli jails, told APTN all the men should now be freed.

He added there was no reason for continuing to hold them.

Many Israelis hope the release will help the Jewish state when it begins negotiations for the release of servicemen who went missing in action in Lebanon.

Among the missing troops is airman Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon during a 1986 bombing raid.

His whereabouts are unknown, but Israel holds Iran, Hezbollah's backer, responsible for his fate.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin said Israel released the men as a gesture and hoped that it would obtain information about Arad as a result.

Among the prisoners released were Hisham Fahs and Ahmed Obeid, captured by Israeli commandos in 1989 with Hezbollah leader, Sheik Abdel-Karim Obeid.

Both men, along with Ahmed Srour, Kamal Rizk and Hussein Tleis, arrived aboard a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt, Germany, where they were flown from Tel Aviv earlier Sunday.

Germany mediated their release.

Hundreds of relatives, friends and well-wishers lined up at the airport terminal to welcome the prisoners, showering them with rice and rose petals and carrying them on their shoulders.

Also present were Naim Kassem, Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general, Hezbollah legislators and government representatives.

Describing the release as a "humanitarian initiative" mediated by the German government, Kassem pledged to continue the struggle and exert all efforts to secure the release of all Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.

The release follows a rare two-day ceasefire last week which allowed the recovery of the remains of five Hezbollah guerrillas killed in battle with Israeli troops in August.

SOUNDBITE: (English)
"I believe that the closer we are to peace with Syria and Lebanon, we will get more information about the Israeli MIA, including Ron Arad and others. And that it is why I believe there is a real contribution in the kind in the kind of gestures and process of negotiation with the Syriens towards this very important aim."

, saying he is delighted they have finally been freed and that it presages better relations between Israel and Lebanon in advance of an Israeli army withdrawal from the country.
SUPERCAPTION: Zvi Rish, lawyer for released Hezbollah prisoners

SOUNDBITE: (English)

SUPERCAPTION: Yossi Beilin, Justice Minister

SOUNDBITE: (Arabic)
"We have exerted great efforts to discover (Arad's) fate and we continue to do so because if we do, we could secure the release of all our prisoners."
SUPERCAPTION: Hezbollah deputy secretary general Sheikh Naseem Kassem

SOUNDBITE: (Arabic)
"It is a great feeling, I hope all prisoners will be released soon"
SUPERCAPTION: Prisoner

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    169949
    AP ARCHIVE
    BEIRUT
    GENERAL NEWS
    GERMANY
    ISRAEL
    JERUSALEM
    LEBANON
    MIDDLE EAST
    TEL AVIV
    YOSSI BEILIN

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