Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Hizbollah: Ron Arad probably dead


The leader of Lebanon's Hizbollah guerrilla group said on Wednesday he believed a missing Israeli airman at the heart of prisoner exchange negotiations with the Jewish state was probably dead and his remains lost.

"If any information were available to us about Ron Arad we would have made a new deal," Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised interview on Lebanon's NTV channel.

"I have an analysis that is not based on tangible facts ... but if you asked me for my conclusion I would say that he is dead and lost... he died, no one knew of him and his remains have disappeared."

Nasrallah's comments mark the first time the group has directly said it does not have Arad's remains or hard information on his whereabouts. It had previously declined to comment on Arad's fate and said last year negotiations had reached a critical stage.

Israel and Shi'ite Muslim Hizbollah carried out a German-mediated prisoner-swap in January 2004 that freed hundreds of Arab prisoners for a kidnapped Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.

Hizbollah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, had snatched those soldiers from a disputed border area in 2000 to pressure Israel into releasing Lebanese detainees held in its jails.

A second stage of talks is believed to have focused on Arad, who was downed during a bombing raid over Lebanon in 1986, and on four Iranian diplomats who disappeared in Lebanon in 1982, the year the Jewish state invaded Beirut.

Hizbollah wants the release of Samir al-Qantar, the longest-held Lebanese, who is serving a 542-year prison sentence for killing four Israelis in 1979.