Macabre auction of soldiers' corpses

A dead sergeant's remains are at the centre of a gruesome wrangle between Israel and Hizbollah, reports Robert Fisk in Beirut
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LEBANON'S body bazaar - the gruesome exchange of body parts and prisoners between Israel and Hizbollah guerrillas - is back in operation, with the pro-Iranian group offering pieces of an Israeli army sergeant's body in return for at least 30 captured guerrillas and several corpses.

But an argument over the bodies of four Shia Muslims - Hizbollah says Israel holds them, although they do not appear on a list of corpses to be exchanged - means that the remains of Sergeant Itamar Ilya are unlikely to be returned to his family this week.

Sgt Ilya was one of 12 Israeli soldiers on an apparent assassination mission last September, who were themselves ambushed by Hizbollah near the village of Aansariyeh in southern Lebanon. Blown to pieces by explosives he was carrying on his back when he walked into a minefield, the Israeli soldier's head and other body parts were later recovered. The troops had been betrayed by one of their own informers who led them into the trap on Hizbollah's instructions.

Israel now admits it holds prisoners as hostages for the release of Israeli captives and bodies - a practice started by pro-Iranian groups who kidnapped Westerners in Lebanon in the late 1980s - and up to 200 mostly Shia Muslims, many of them guerrillas, are inmates of the notorious Khiam jail in Israeli- occupied southern Lebanon. Hizbollah has been negotiating with the Israelis through the International Red Cross, and originally demanded 40 prisoners and more than 40 bodies in exchange for the Israeli sergeant's remains.

But a meeting between Jean-Jacques Fresard, the ICRC's chief delegate in Lebanon, and Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's chairman, was cancelled on Friday after the guerrilla movement insisted that the identities of four dead Shias should be added to Israel's list. Among the dead whose bodies are expected to be handed over by Israel is Sayed Nasrallah's own son, Hadi, who was killed in an Israeli ambush last year.

President Jacques Chirac of France is said to have asked Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to release Suha Beshara, a Lebanese woman held prisoner since she tried to assassinate General Antoine Lahd, Israel's proxy militia commander in southern Lebanon, in 1985. Mr Netanyahu reportedly refused Mr Chirac's request. Along with Mustafa Dirani and Sheikh Abdul- Karim Obeid - both prominent Shia militants abducted by the Israelis - she is apparently intended to be used in the biggest swap of all: for Ron Arad, the Israeli pilot shot down over Sidon in an air raid on the Palestinian camp of Ein el-Helwe.

The last major exchange of corpses was arranged by the head of the German intelligence service, who organised the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers for more than 60 Hizbollah dead. The Lebanese were dug up from a cemetery in northern Israel and sent through the Israeli-occupied zone to the town of Nabatea in numbered coffins aboard lorries. The two Israeli dead had apparently been kept in refrigerated containers.

None of this should suggest any great respect for the dead of either side. When the Israeli sergeant was killed last year, a guerrilla paraded his head in front of local television crews. Parts of his body were later displayed at a press conference. During the previous exchange of corpses, many of the Hizbollah coffins sent north by Israel were so poorly sealed that witnesses were overcome by the stench of decomposition.