Image: Ron Arad
Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator who was captured after his fighter jet went down in Lebanon in 1986, is shown in this file photo provided by Israel's Channel One on July 13.
updated 10/8/2008 3:54:07 PM ET 2008-10-08T19:54:07

Israel's most famous missing soldier escaped from captivity in Lebanon and probably died 20 years ago while trying to make his way home through difficult terrain, Hezbollah told Israel's government, according to a newspaper report Wednesday.

The Lebanese guerrilla group submitted the report on airman Ron Arad's fate to the Israeli government as part of a July prisoner swap in which Israel freed five Lebanese militants for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

Israeli security officials confirmed that the Maariv daily accurately summarized Hezbollah's account. However, they dismissed Hezbollah's claim, noting that the group provides no evidence that Arad died.

Arad's plane was shot down Oct. 16, 1986 by Lebanese militiamen. The plane's pilot was rescued by helicopter and the Israeli military believed Arad, the plane's navigator, was captured alive. Arad was initially held by Amal, a Shiite Muslim group and Hezbollah rival.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah suggested in a 2006 speech that Arad may have died in the late 1980s, after managing to escape.

Remains never found
In its report to Israel, Hezbollah was more specific.

"The Israeli pilot escaped from his holding cell on the night between the fourth and fifth of May 1988, and headed south toward the (Israeli) occupied security zone," Maariv quoted the Hezbollah report as saying.

The guerrilla group said Arad may have died from a number of causes in the remote, mountainous area, including fever, thirst or falling off a cliff. Hezbollah said it believes Arad is dead, but acknowledged that his remains were never found.

The Israeli officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the information, said they believe Hezbollah submitted the report in an attempt to meet Israel's demand for information about Arad as part of the prisoner swap.

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