US Commission Assists Israel in Search For MIAs

A US Congressional commission trying to find Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon met with the soldiers' parents yesterday, apparently holding out new hope that they might discover the captives' fate.

``There is something in the air,'' says Yona Baumel, father of Zacharia Baumel, who has been missing since June 1982. ``We have received new information, but we are waiting for proof.''

The three-member commission, headed by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chief of Staff Michael Van Dusen, has kept a low profile during its three-day stay in Israel, and Israeli officials have been equally tight-lipped about the visit.

``They are meeting all kinds of officials from all kinds of institutions, anyone who can help them,'' says Gadi Baldianski, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

``We think too much noise about this mission may not be helpful for what they have come to do,'' he says.

The delegation's visit to the region was agreed to by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad last month, in a gesture to Warren Christopher as the US secretary of state sought to restart peace negotiations between Israel and Syria.

Given Syria's interest in winning United States backing for its demand that Israel return all of the Golan Heights it captured in 1967, observers suggest that President Assad may now judge it worthwhile to help the US investigators by exerting his strong influence in Lebanon.

``I would certainly hope that in the context of the peace process, the resolution of these cases could be seen as a confidence building measure of a humanitarian nature,'' says Debra Bodlander, a member of the team.

``It's not a question of pressure anymore,'' Mr. Baumel says. ``The Syrians may consider it in their interests to close this case now.''

The team is due to travel to Syria today, and from there will possibly go on to Lebanon, where all six soldiers disappeared, and where at least one is believed to be held.

He is Air Force navigator Capt. Ron Arad, shot down over south Lebanon during a bombing raid in October 1986, and who is known to have been captured alive, although nothing has been heard from him since 1987.

Though believed to have been held for his first year of captivity by Amal, a Lebanese Shiite Muslim militia, Captain Arad is thought to have been passed on to another group since, possibly to the pro-Iranian Hizbullah, or to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards themselves.

Israeli officials are convinced Arad is alive, but they are less sure of the fate of three Armored Corps soldiers, Zacharia Baumel, Yehuda Katz, and Zvi Feldman, who disappeared during a tank battle with Syrian forces during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

They were reportedly seen alive in the Syrian capital, Damascus, soon after their capture, but the Syrian authorities later announced that the three had been killed in combat, and buried in Damascus. No proof of their death, however, was ever provided.

In the cases of Yossi Fink and Rachamim Alsheikh, however, two soldiers ambushed by Hizbullah guerrillas in February 1986, the Israeli authorities have concluded that they are dead, on the basis of information gleaned by former United Nations Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar during his efforts to win the release of Western hostages in Lebanon in 1991.

The Israeli Army is seeking the return of their bodies.

Although refusing to divulge the details of their discussions with the Congressional staffers, parents of the missing soldiers praised the delegation's commitment.

``The only real breakthrough will be to see him [Yehuda] back,'' said Yosef Katz, as he emerged from his meeting. ``But it is an emotional breakthrough to still find people whose sincerity is not in doubt.''

In Lebanon, however, Hizbullah leader Sheikh Nasrallah has said he will not cooperate with the US delegation unless it concerns itself equally with the fate of Shiite prisoners held in Israeli jails, most notably that of Sheikh Abdel-Karim Obeid, who was kidnapped from his home in southern Lebanon by Israeli commandoes in 1989.

Sheikh Obeid has been held captive ever since as a bargaining chip to use in return for Arad.

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