Hopes rise for missing Israeli pilot

Envoy seeks prisoner swap, writes Robert Fisk in Beirut
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An apparent guarantee from Iran that the missing Israeli pilot Ron Arad is still alive lies behind a dramatic attempt by Germany's top intelligence officer to seek the release of both the Israeli, shot down on a bombing raid over Lebanon in 1986, and dozens of Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.

Bernd Schmidbauer arrived in Lebanon on Thursday clutching letters and videos made by two of the most prominent Shia captives in Israel, both of whom would be candidates for a swap with Mr Arad.

Yesterday Mr Schmidbauer met Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Iranian- supported Hizbollah guerrilla movement, and produced - and Hizbollah confirmed this - letters from Muslim prisoners, including one from Mustafa Dirani, abducted by the Israelis in 1994, and another from Sheikh Abdul- Karim Obeid, a Shia cleric kidnapped by Israelis from his Lebanon home in 1989.

Mr Dirani is widely believed to have been Mr Arad's captor in the days immediately following his abortive raid on a Palestinian camp near Sidon. Sheikh Obeid, a Hizbollah sympathiser, was accused, without proof, of being involved in the kidnapping of the US colonel William Higgins, an official UN observer in Lebanon, who died in Shia militia captivity, allegedly hanged in revenge for Sheikh Obeid's kidnapping.

Mr Schmidbauer travelled secretly to Tehran on 22 September, where he received assurances - not, apparently, from the Iranian authorities themselves - that Mr Arad was alive. He was due to come to Lebanon more than three weeks ago but was delayed by unknown difficulties in his negotiations. He recently visited Israel, where he collected the letters and tapes. Today he is expected to set off for the Lebanese city of Baalbek, in the Bekaa valley, for further talks with Hizbollah officials. The organisation, whose members killed two more Israeli occupation soldiers and wounded four in southern Lebanon early yesterday, has always denied any involvement in Mr Arad's capture or captivity. So has Iran. But in the days immediately following the shooting down of the Phantom jet on 16 October 1986, he was said to have been held in a village near Baalbek.

The German intelligence chief placed his Lebanese visit on an official footing by meeting separately yesterday Michel al-Murr, the Interior Minister, who confirmed Mr Schmidbauer was carrying letters from Mr Dirani and Sheikh Obeid. The German's visit, he said, was "a symbolic step" but then added that Mr Schmidbauer's trip here was "not one of courtesy but to discuss details". Mr Murr also confirmed the German would be discussing the fate of Mr Arad while he was in Lebanon.

Mr Schmidbauer's visit is important because it was he who last July arranged the exchange of the bodies of 45 Hizbollah members killed in southern Lebanon for the remains of two Israeli soldiers who died in a Hizbollah ambush in the same area 10 years ago. The letters from Mr Dirani and Sheikh Obeid, both imprisoned in southern Israel, include messages to their wives and families in Lebanon.

As Chancellor Helmut Kohl's personal security adviser, Mr Schmidbauer was criticised by the Israelis two years ago for meeting in Bonn the head of the Iranian intelligence service. But his negotiation last July has given him a new and more respectable status in the eyes of the Israelis who, after all, seek the return of their missing pilot through what diplomats like to call the "good offices" of the Germans.