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Israel releases 9 prisoners in deal for Mossad agents

Rally Latest developments: October 13, 1997
Web posted at: 7:23 p.m. EDT (2323 GMT)

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Nine handcuffed Arab prisoners were flown to Jordan Monday as part of a trade that secured the return of two Israeli secret agents in the wake of a bungled assassination attempt.

Israel Radio said the nine -- eight Palestinians and a Jordanian -- are among dozens of prisoners Israel has agreed to release in exchange for the Mossad agents. The agents were captured after trying to kill Khaled Meshaal, the political chief of the Islamic group Hamas, September 25 in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu persuaded Jordan's King Hussein to agree to the swap, and last week Israel freed 20 prisoners, including Hamas' founder and spiritual father, Sheik Ahmed Yassin.

Israel has promised to free as many as 50 more in an attempt to soothe ruffled feelings after the assassination attempt soured relations with Jordan and Canada -- the agents used fake Canadian passports -- and brought a firestorm of criticism down on Netanyahu.

"From time to time, we have to pay a price for something which you had to do," Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said Monday. "I think we are not going to release any Hamas (activists) which would be dangerous."

An Israeli Prison Authority list showed that all but one of those freed Monday were jailed on offenses such as possession of weapons or explosives and membership in terrorist groups. The ninth prisoner was serving a three-year sentence for robbery. None had been involved in attacks on Israelis.

A spokeswoman for the Israeli prison services said the prisoners would be held in a Jordanian prison.

In return for Israel's prisoner releases, Jordan has freed two Israeli Mossad agents involved in the assassination attempt.

Jordanian-Israeli relations curtailed

Israel said that it will continue to work with Jordan, which had been Israel's friendliest Arab neighbor until the attempt on Meshaal.

But a Jordanian newspaper said Sunday that Jordan had expelled Mossad agents over the attack, and Jordan's Deputy Prime Minister Jawad al-Anani said cooperation with Israel had been curtailed by the Meshaal incident.

"I believe that the number of security staff in the Israeli embassy has decreased as a result of that thing, so this is the main indicator to the slackening security cooperation in that area," he told Israel Radio's English-language service.

In the Israeli parliament, Netanyahu has been sharply criticized by opposition lawmakers for having a junior minister defend his government during a debate over his performance in office and his handling of the Meshaal affair.


"Once again he is shunning parliament and is failing to report to the public and publicly elected officials," Labor party legislator Haim Ramon said Monday.

Science Minister Michael Eitan, speaking on Netanyahu's behalf, said above the shouts of critics: "You say yourselves we have to battle terrorism everywhere. This government is doing that. It is battling terrorism."

But he added: "There was an operational malfunction."

Hamas rally celebrates Yassin's return

Meanwhile, at An Najah University on the West Bank, about 4,000 people attended a Hamas rally celebrating Yassin's return to Gaza.

It featured the burning of an Israeli flag and eight Hamas activists dressed as suicide bombers, wearing white death shrouds and belts with fake explosives chanting "Ahmed Yassin, you are our hero! We are your soldiers!"

Also on Monday, Israel's army said it will demolish the homes of three Islamic militants who carried out two suicide bombings in Jerusalem this summer and seal the home of a fourth bomber. The attacks in late July and early September killed 21 Israelis.

The families, in Asira al-Shamaliya near Nablus, were given 48 hours to object to the army orders. A fifth bomber still has not been identified.

Finally, a Palestinian official said U.S. Middle East peace envoy Dennis Ross plans to return to the roiling region Saturday to continue efforts to salvage peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Correspondent Jerrold Kessel and Reuters contributed to this report.

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