Germans help Israel retrieve soldiers' bodies

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The German intelligence service was last night preparing to oversee an exchange of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers for the remains of at least 14 Lebanese guerrillas buried in a makeshift cemetery in northern Israel. The involvement of the Germans - and in particular of Bernd Schmidbauer, Chancellor Kohl's senior intelligence adviser - underlines Germany's close connections with the Iranian intelligence service, which had to approve the exchange.

German security and forensic officers had earlier moved into Beirut's Summerland Hotel with orders to confirm that the two bodies in Lebanon were those of Rahamim alsheikh and Yosef Fink, Israeli occupation soldiers who were wounded and captured during a Hizbollah ambush on their patrol inside southern Lebanon in 1986. In a makeshift cemetery at Gadot in northern Israel, Israelis had earlier exhumed the bodies of at least 14 guerrillas and taken them from the graveyard in wooden coffins.

Negotiations for exchanging bodies - the most gruesome and sinister bazaar in the Middle East conflict - have been a part of almost every Arab-Israeli war, continuing even while hostilities are still in progress. Israeli air raids and Hizbollah attacks on Israeli troops in Lebanon have gone on while Mr Schmidbauer - who negotiated the release of two German hostages in Beirut in 1992 - has been waiting to fly to Damascus for talks with Hizbollah officials.

The Hizbollah want the release of Sheikh Abdul-Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, both kidnapped in Lebanon by the Israelis in 1989 and 1994. Israel wants the Hizbollah - or the Iranians - to free Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator shot down at Sidon in 1986.

When it was discovered that German and Iranian intelligence services had held consultations in Bonn last year, Israel was loud in its condemnation; now, it seems, the Germans are being rehabilitated in the interests of the body exchange.