NEVER has the prospect of freedom for the 11 Western hostages in Lebanon seemed so imminent.As the delicate minuet of negotiations gathered pace in the shadows, the Islamic Jihad group, which is believed to hold three Westerners, released a statement saying it was "fully ready to offer the necessary support ... to reach the requested comprehensive solution," according to Reuters. Accompanying the release was a photo of captive Terry Anderson, the longest-held Westerner in Lebanon. The group broke the hostage deadlock last month when it freed Briton John McCarthy and invited United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar to broker negotiations. Mr. Perez de Cuellar is concluding a trip to Iran - which has long been thought to hold influence over the Jihad and other hostage-holding groups in Lebanon - and his work seems to be on the verge of success. The wife of British hostage Jack Mann flew to Beirut yesterday after Mann's captors released the first news of him since his kidnapping 28 months ago. The Revolutionary Justice Organization claimed the 77-year-old Mann was in good health, and said in a statement on Thursday, "We hope the happy ending to [the dilemma of] all the detainees will be reached soon." On Wednesday, the Israelis handed over the bodies of nine Iranian-backed Hizbullah guerrillas killed in South Lebanon and persuaded its client militia, the South Lebanon Army (SLA), to release 51 Lebanese Shiite prisoners from its Al-Khiam jail. The prison is near Marjayoun in the "security zone" Israel controls in south Lebanon. That move came in response to what top Israeli hostage negotiator Uri Lubrani called "irrefutable evidence" about the fate of one of its seven soldiers missing in Lebanon. Israel learned conclusivly that Rachamim Alsheikh, captured in 1986, is dead. While the abductors of the Western hostages have said they will free their captives only in return for Israel's release of its Muslim prisoners, Israel has said it requires evidence of the fate of its seven MIAs first. Mr. Lubrani hinted strongly on Wednesday that the next move would be the return of Israeli soldier Samir Assad's body by the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), a Palestinian guerrilla group. Mr. Assad, captured in South Lebanon in 1983, is said by the DFLP to have been subsequently killed in an Israeli air raid. Israel is expected to reciprocate for the return of Assad's body by allowing a DFLP member deported from the occupied territories to return home. This action would break from Israel's declared policy of not including Palestinian prisoners or deportees in any hostage deals. Welcoming Wednesday's release of the Shiite prisoners, the Revolutionary Justice Organization said it had reached agreement with United Nations mediators on "a mechanism of a solution whereby Sheikh Abdel Karim Obeid and all the detained brothers would be released in stages." Sheikh Obeid, a Muslim cleric kidnapped by Israeli troops from his south Lebanon home in 1989, is the most prized of all Israel's Lebanese prisoners. Progress toward a final solution to the hostage drama is expected by all sides to move in stages. At a press conference in Tel Aviv, Lubrani said it was impossible to win the release of all the hostages and prisoners and learn the fate of Israel's missing soldiers in one package. "This cannot be done in one shot," he said. "We take it step by step, and whenever we have some progress, we respond." That approach is shared by Hussein Musawi, a member of the ruling council of Hizbullah in Lebanon, widely seen as the umbrella organization grouping all the factions which hold Western hostages. "I think the solution of the hostage problem will be gradual," he said after Israel's prisoner release, "with Islamic groups releasing some hostages in return for a move reciprocated by the other side, and so on, until all hostages and prisoners are free." But another hostage negotiator, Yohanan Bein, Deputy Director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, cautioned that the mechanism for an overall resolution of the hostage crisis is fragile. "This is like a machine," he told Israel Radio on Thursday. "When one part stops, the whole thing stops." Officials are also awaiting definitive proof of the fate of Yossi Fink, who was caught with Alsheikh in a 1986 ambush by Hizbullah guerrillas. Information passed through Perez de Cuellar about what happened to him was not definitive, Lubrani said. Privately, Israeli officials say they are sure Fink is dead, and the only one among the MIAs for whom hopes run high is Ron Arad, an Air Force navigator who bailed out of his plane over Lebanon in 1986. Arad was reportedly captured by Shiite Amal guerrillas and later handed over to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Lubrani said he had "all the reasons to hope and believe he is alive." Arad is expected to be the last MIA to be accounted for, just as Sheikh Obeid is expected to be the last Israeli prisoner to be released. Meanwhile Perez de Cuellar continues to coordinate the secret moves involving Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and their proxy militias. It is likely to be his last major initiative before his term as UN chief expires at the end of this year, a point Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy seized on. "Perhaps this fact will increase the pace far beyond what existed in another framework," he said. "I believe the chances today are greater than ever."