- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2001

TEL AVIV Three Israeli soldiers abducted by Islamic militants a year ago in a raid on the Lebanon border are most likely dead, Israeli security officials announced yesterday at a hastily arranged news conference.

Citing reliable intelligence information obtained recently, the officials said they had determined with near certainty that the soldiers died from wounds sustained in the initial clash with members of the Hezbollah group.

They said Israel, which had been trying through intermediaries to arrange a prisoner swap, was still ready to bargain for the bodies of the three soldiers.

"According to the assessments we've accumulated, the likelihood that the boys are dead is extremely high," said Maj. Gen. Gil Regev at a news conference in Tel Aviv.

"This is an updated assessment that includes new information from various sources," he said.

Gen. Regev refused to disclose the nature of the intelligence information but described it as both "reliable" and "varied." He said the information did not apply to Elhanan Tenebaum, an Israeli civilian abducted separately by Hezbollah days after the soldiers were captured.

Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia group that drove Israeli troops out of Lebanon last year after an 18-year occupation, had no response to the Israeli disclosure.

The group's general-secretary, Hassan Nassrallah, had said repeatedly over the past year that he would provide details about the soldiers' condition only in exchange for the release of Lebanese prisoners held in Israeli jails.

"The Zionists are wasting time and playing with the nerves of the prisoners' families in order not to pay the required humanitarian price, but ultimately they are going to pay it," Mr. Nassrallah said in a statement last week.

But Israel had demanded some evidence that the three Benjamin Avraham, Omar Souad and Adi Avitan were still alive before entering into serious negotiations.

Families of the three soldiers said they would not lose hope until they saw unmistakable evidence bodies or photographs that their loved ones are dead.

"As long as there is no proof our sons are dead, we will continue to believe there is a chance they are still alive," said Haim Avraham, father of one of the soldiers, after being briefed by Israeli army officials.

The three were patrolling an area of Israel's border with Lebanon known as Shebaa Farms on Oct. 7, 2000, when a Hezbollah squad detonated a powerful roadside bomb near their jeep. Several militants cut through the fence, grabbed the soldiers and whisked them to Lebanon.

Hezbollah, which claims Shebaa as part of Lebanon, said it was ready to free the soldiers in exchange for Lebanese and Arab prisoners held by Israel, including Abdel-Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani.

Israel snatched Mr. Obeid and Mr. Dirani from Lebanon during the 1990s as bargaining chips for another missing Israeli serviceman Air Force navigator Ron Arad, whose plane went down in Lebanon in 1986.

But neither side benefited from the tit-for-tat abductions. Mr. Obeid and Mr. Dirani remain in prison while Mr. Arad has not been heard from in 13 years.

"This definitely lowers the chances of my clients being freed," said Zvi Rish, the Israeli attorney who represents Mr. Dirani and Mr. Obeid.

He said both German and Austrian envoys had tried to mediate between Israel and Hezbollah.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was in Israel last week but Gen. Regev refused to say if he was a source for the new intelligence information Israel had about the soldiers.

Speculation also centered on U.N. officials, who had recently shown Israel a videotape shot near the border hours after the abduction. Israel had been angry at the world body for its failure to reveal the tape sooner.

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