Navigator Ron Arad's family is suing Mustafa Dirani for around $20 million in compensation over mistreatment allegedly suffered by Arad in detention, legal sources said Wednesday.

The development was revealed as Israel appeared poised to free scores of Arab prisoners in exchange for the release of several Israelis captured by the Lebanese resistance movement, Hizb Allah.

The family claims Arad, who was captured in 1986 when his plane came down over Lebanon, was locked up by Dirani in the boot of his car and handed over for questioning to Russian and Syrian agents who abused him. It is not known whether Arad is still alive.

The lawsuit comes after an Israeli court ordered the defence ministry to investigate a claim by Dirani that a large sum of money was taken from him when he was kidnapped in 1994 by the Israeli army to be used as a bargaining chip.

Timing questioned

But Dirani's lawyer, Zvi Rish, accused Arad's family of "abusing the legal system" with the sole purpose of scuppering the exchange deal, which still has to be officially approved by the cabinet.

"The timing is obvious. Why did they wait nine and a half years to press a lawsuit? This is a demonisation of Dirani aimed at sabotaging the whole deal by creating public opinion against him and influencing the ministers," said Rish.

"The family has no evidence to back up their claims, but the consequence is that the release of other Israelis is now endangered"

Zvi Rish,
defence lawyer for Mustafa Dirani

"This lawsuit had no value, the family has no evidence to back up their claims, but the consequence is that the release of other Israelis is now endangered," he added.

Dirani and another leading Hizb Allah member, Abd al-Karim Obaid, were expected to be among a large group of Arab prisoners Israel would free in exchange for the release of three soldiers captured by Hizb Allah in 2000, and alleged spy Elhannan Tannenbaum.

Detainee deal near

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has confirmed a prisoner swap with Hizb Allah will be considered by the cabinet. 

"I intend to put approval of the prisoner exchange deal, if we reach an agreement, before the entire cabinet plenum for it to decide," Sharon said in comments published in the daily Maariv on Wednesday. 

"We are closer than before, but it is still far from being finished," he added.

Palestinian newspapers reported on Tuesday that Israel would release 400 Arab prisoners as part of the deal. Around 185 of them would be Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian while the rest Palestinian.

The Hizb Allah resistance movement sprung up after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1983. It fought a 17-year guerrilla war  in southern Lebanon against Israeli occupation forces and proxy militias. Israel finally withdrew its forces in May 2000.