JERUSALEM -- Israel abducted three Lebanese civilians from South Lebanon yesterday but apparently decided to send them home after interrogation.
The three were taken in a nighttime raid that seemed like a repetition of the kidnapping of Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, a Muslim cleric who has been held prisoner in Israel since 1989. But later it appeared to be an operation somehow gone wrong -- apparently by having taken civilians innocent of any actions against Israel.
An army statement initially described the incident as part of "operational activities against terrorist attacks in the region" and described the three civilians as "terrorist suspects." But Israel's state radio quoted unnamed military sources as saying a few hours later that the men would be released.
Israel's target appeared to be Hezbollah, a militia supported by Iran and believed to be responsible for having held Western hostages. It is also believed to have information about four missing Israeli soldiers or to have custody of them, or of their remains.
The raid reflected Israel's frustration in trying to obtain news about the soldiers and its failure to have them included in recent hostages releases.
Israel has repeatedly offered to release Sheik Obeid and about 300 other Lebanese prisoners in exchange for its own men. But it has found no takers.
The Israeli raid occurred on the outskirts of the village of Jibsheet,the home of Sheik Obeid, about 40 miles south of Beirut and five miles north of Israel's "security zone" in southern Lebanon.
Witnesses quoted by news agencies said soldiers arrived in five helicopters and established a roadblock. About 10 people were detained, placed in chains and questioned. Three of them were taken away in a helicopter, and the others were released, still in chains.
A United Nations official in the area said that none of the three was known to be involved with Hezbollah. He said one was a part-time correspondent for the Reuters news agency and a Beirut newspaper, the second was the correspondent's partner in a private television station, and the third was a butcher.
"They are taking the wrong people," the official said. "The problem is to find someone from Hezbollah dumb enough to stay in the area and risk being kidnapped."
Hezbollah is the only militia that has refused to surrender its arms to the reorganized government in Beirut.