Israeli-Backed Militia Says It Will Release Prisoners

THE leader of an Israeli-backed militia in south Lebanon said the group would release 51 Arab prisoners Wednesday and would hand them over to the Red Cross.Gen. Antoine Lahd, commander of the South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia, said that Israel had earlier handed over the bodies of nine Lebanese to the Red Cross - the latest signs of a breakthrough in efforts to swap Arab and other prisoners for Western hostages held in Lebanon. "The SLA has decided to release 51 prisoners from Khiam [prison camp]. Some will be handed to the Lebanese Red Cross and others to the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross]," General Lahd said in a statement broadcast on SLA-run Voice of the South radio. "We are taking this step to help [United Nations Secretary-General] Javier Perez de Cuellar in his efforts that he is making now concerning the Western hostages because it has been a long time they were apart from their families," Lahd said. Mr. Perez de Cuellar is in Iran trying to negotiate a prisoner-for-hostage release and Wednesday met Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati. Before Lahd's comments, the chief ICRC delegate to Lebanon, Christopher Harnisch, said Israeli authorities would hand over a number of bodies to the ICRC on the Israeli-Lebanese border. Lahd said the prisoners were to be freed by the SLA in Marjayoun, the headquarters of the SLA, inside an Israeli-declared security zone in the south. The pro-Iranian kidnappers of up to 10 Western hostages in Lebanon had demanded the release of at least some of the hundreds of Arab prisoners held in Khiam camp as a goodwill gesture toward a UN-brokered prisoner-for-hostage exchange. The handing over of the bodies and the impending releases are the first gestures by Israel and its militia allies since Briton John McCarthy and American Edward Tracy were freed by Shiite Muslim kidnappers early last month.

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