Fingerprints hold key to hostage swap

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The most important prisoner swap between Israel and its Arab enemies in over a decade may be approaching as two Lebanese government officials fly to Germany this weekend with what they say are the fingerprints of Ron Arad, an Israeli airman whom many had long given up for dead.

The prints will be forwarded to Israel by the head of the German secret service, Bernd Schmidbauer, who is expected to meet the two Lebanese today.

Mr Arad was the navigator of a Phantom jet shot down while bombing a Palestinian refugee camp at Sidon 10 years ago. His pilot escaped by clinging to the skids of a rescue helicopter, but the navigator was captured by Palestinians and later handed over to a Lebanese Shia group reportedly led by Mustafa Dirani, who was kidnapped from his Lebanese home by Israeli soldiers in 1994.

Mr Dirani and Sheikh Abdul-Karim Obeid, a prominent Hizbollah clergyman abducted by the Israelis in 1989, are among 35 Lebanese Muslim captives Israel would exchange for Mr Arad if it is convinced by the fingerprints that the missing airman is alive.

Mr Schmidbauer, who engineered an exchange of Israeli and Hizbollah corpses last July, has made frequent visits to Tehran, where he has been informed that Mr Arad is alive, even though Iranian officials insist they have nothing to do with his captivity. The German intelligence head handed over to the Israelis a letter which he was told had been written by Mr Arad, but the Israelis insisted on further proof that the airman was alive. Mr Schmidbauer has already brought letters from Mr Dirani, Sheikh Obeid and others for their families in Lebanon as part of his continuing talks with both sides to secure an exchange.

Hizbollah continue to deny any knowledge of what happened to the airman. Last week Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the movement's head, described how Mr Schmidbauer pleaded with him for evidence of Mr Arad's fate during a meeting in Beirut. "Isn't there anything from Ron Arad? His cap, a piece of his clothes... shoes, parachute... a strand of hair?" Mr Nasrallah says he was asked. "We told him there is nothing." But the Lebanese appear convinced that Mr Arad is alive, and have played a prominent role in meetings between Mr Schmidbauer and the Hizbollah.

If the prisoner exchange does come about - and the story of both sides' efforts to secure their release is littered with false hopes and broken promises - it will be a significant achievement for the German official and his country's policy of continuing links with Iran, and underline the value of a European role in the Middle East.

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