The grisly currency traded between Israel and its enemies

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The Independent Online
Lebanon's body bazaar - the constant bargaining between guerrillas and the Israeli army for the exchange of each other's corpses - has reached a gruesome stage. As our Middle East Correspondent reports from Tyre, the Israelis - anxious to retrieve the remains of a soldier killed in an ambush last year - are leaving the bodies of dead guerrillas unburied in the no-man's land of southern Lebanon.

Amid the rocks of the Wadi Selouki lie three dead men. Rajeh Aidi, Samer Balluli and Saleh al-Jadaa have been there since 24 October, the day when their Islamic Jihad guerrilla operation against Israeli occupation troops went fatally wrong. All three - Aidi was Lebanese, the other two Palestinian - were shot dead in a gun battle and within hours, the United Nations and the International Red Cross asked the Israelis for permission to retrieve the bodies for burial.

Despite repeated requests, the UN says it never even received a reply. The Red Cross confirms it was refused permission to collect the corpses for "security" reasons. A month later, six more Shia guerrillas - two from Hizbollah and four from Amal - were killed by the Israelis near Tair Hafa. Their bodies, too, were allowed to lie unburied for days, prey to the wild boars and dogs that move in packs through the ravines of southern Lebanon.

No one in southern Lebanon - least of all the UN - has much doubt about what lies behind this grisly new practice. On 5 September last year, a Lebanese double-agent lured Israeli troops into a Hizbollah ambush in which 12 Israeli soldiers were killed. The remains of one of them - a head and some limbs - were left at the scene and later displayed by the Hizbollah. Israel demanded their return and the Hizbollah agreed - but only if Israel freed a series of important Lebanese Shia prisoners held inside Israel and at the Khiam prison in the Israeli occupation zone where torture is regularly practised.

Israel refused the deal. And from then on, guerrillas who fell in no- man's land were left to rot. At Tair Hafa, Israeli troops did - much later in November - remove the six corpses, but only after they had been prey to wild animals. Israel already has a cemetery packed with more than 300 Palestinian and Hizbollah corpses, each neatly buried and identified in preparation for future body exchanges between Israel and its enemies. When the son of Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, was killed in an ambush later in September last year, an exception was made to Israel's rule and his body was recovered, filmed on a mortuary slab and then buried along with the other guerrillas in the cemetery at Gadot on the occupied Golan Heights. Recent reports, however, say that - fearing the body might be stolen by Hizbollah sympathisers - the Israelis have reburied it at a secret location.

For his part, Sayed Nasrallah, who insisted that he be sent congratulations rather than condolences on the death of his guerrilla son, announced that he was not interested in the return of his son's body. The youth had gone to Paradise, he said, so his earthly remains meant nothing. This was bad news for the Israelis who had previously bargained for their own dead soldiers with the bodies of their enemies. With the Hizbollah wanting live prisoners rather than dead guerrillas in exchange for Israel's missing soldiers, the equation had been changed.

In reality, the precedent had been set last summer when the head of the German intelligence service arranged for the remains of two dead Israelis to be exchanged for 112 Hizbollah bodies and 45 guerrilla prisoners; many of the latter had spent years without trial in Khiam prison. To add further pressure for the return of their soldier killed in last September's ambush, the Israelis ended all International Red Cross visits to Khiam and banned further family visits to the jail - where some of the inmates have spent almost half their lives behind bars.

As if to make the grim soukh of death even grimmer, Lebanese guerrillas are themselves believed to maintain a secret cemetery of their enemy dead. There is a widespread belief in Lebanon that the bodies of three Israeli soldiers who disappeared during a tank battle in the Bekaa Valley may be buried here. And somewhere in the Bekaa lies the grave of British freelance journalist Alec Collet - on assignment for the UN - who was taken hostage on the outskirts of Beirut in 1985; his kidnappers later released a video which showed what appeared to be his corpse hanging from a noose.

Although it has never been reported, the UN made two attempts to recover Collet's body in 1995. At the first site, in a field near the village of Mazraa al-Foukhar, three UN officials dug for the grave; they found bones - but they were later identified as those of a goat. Lebanon, it seems, keeps its secrets well: somewhere in this tiny country also lie the graves of some 22,000 Lebanese civil war kidnap victims, not one of whom has ever been found.