Freed Israeli photographer returns home after 5 months' imprisonment in Libya

JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli photographer jailed by Libya for five months returned home Monday after an Austrian tycoon brokered a deal for his freedom that involved the delivery of 20 prefabricated homes from a Libyan charity to the Gaza Strip.

The agreement involved months of covert mediation between two countries that have no diplomatic ties and a long history of hostility. Israel's foreign minister praised the Libyans for their handling of the affair.

Rafael Rafram Chaddad, an Israeli-Tunisian dual national, disappeared in March in Libya, where he was photographing Jewish heritage sites on behalf of an organization that documents the history of Libya's vanished Jewish community.

His last communication was an e-mail he sent saying he was heading to the Jewish Quarter in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, to photograph a synagogue, according to Pedazur Benattia, whose Or Shalom organization sponsored the photographer's trip. Chaddad was supposed to board a flight to Tunisia the next day but never made it, Benattia said.

Chaddad's whereabouts were kept secret until late Sunday, when Israel's military censor lifted a gag order and announced he had left Libyan and landed in Vienna. The gag had been imposed because of fears that publicity could endanger Chaddad and prospects for his release.

Looking tired but healthy, Chaddad was greeted by a crowd of reporters and relatives at Israel's international airport outside Tel Aviv when he landed Monday afternoon accompanied by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who helped engineer his release.

Lieberman thanked Libya, and said Tripoli's "demands were very reasonable, very responsible and very logical and we will honor their demands."

Libya bans Israelis from entering the country, and Chaddad, who declined to speak to reporters Monday, was traveling on his Tunisian passport at the time of his arrest.

Israeli officials said the efforts to free Chaddad involved Italy, which has close ties to Libya, as well as France, the U.S. and Tunisia. The officials said the final deal was arranged by Lieberman and an Austrian-Jewish businessman, Martin Schlaff, a friend of the Israeli foreign minister.

Chaddad was flown from Libya to Austria on Schlaff's private jet, the officials said. Schlaff is one of Austria's richest men.

Lieberman refused to say what promises were made to Libya. But key in the deal were the prefabricated homes for Palestinians in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, the officials said.

The houses were aboard a ship dispatched by a Libyan charity to breach Israel's Gaza blockade in July.

The Israelis wouldn't allow the vessel to reach Gaza and diverted it to an Egyptian port. Under the deal brokered by Schlaff through his contacts in the Libyan and Israeli governments, Israel agreed to allow the houses from the ship's cargo to be transferred overland into Gaza as a gesture to the Libyans, the officials said.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because the details were not officially made public. In Vienna, a spokesman for Schlaff would not comment.

Libyan authorities did not comment and there was no mention of the story in the country's media.

Also Monday, U.N. officials said they signed a deal with Libya for a $50 million project to rebuild houses for 1,250 Gaza refugees. It appeared that this might be part of the agreement over the freed Israeli, although officials would not confirm that.

The deal between Libya and UNRWA, the agency that deals with refugees, was announced in Jordan. The official Petra news agency said Libya's Gadhafi International Charity would donate $50 million to build houses for 1,250 Gaza refugees, as well as $500,000 to provide meals for 110,000 destitute Gaza Palestinians at the end of the daily Ramadan fast.

Thousands of homes were destroyed during Israel's military operation in Gaza 18 months ago to try to stop rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

Chaddad was open about what he was doing in Libya, and it was unclear what had triggered his arrest, said Benattia, whose group sponsored Chaddad's trip.

Libya, like many other Arab countries, was home to a large Jewish community until the middle of the 20th century, when Jews fled persecution linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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Associated Press Writer Veronika Oleksyn contributed to this report from Vienna, Austria.