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Israeli-Arab prisoner swap boosts a besieged Arafat

The ''V'' signs, the smiles, and hugs on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap have given way to speculation - and some concern - about what comes next.

The concern focuses partly on the future of the some 4,500 Palestinians and Lebanese sympathizers freed, mostly in south Lebanon, in a swap for six captive Israeli soldiers last week.

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Israel fears some will resume armed activity in south Lebanon. Arab observers in Beirut are worried the freed captives may risk harm from various anti-PLO groups in the Israeli-occupied south.

Mideast analysts are also puzzling over the future of PLO leader Yasser Arafat - who, at least for now, seems to have outsmarted better armed, Syrian-backed guerrilla rivals in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli.

''The prisoner exchange, freeing so many Palestinians, was a great coup for Arafat,'' says one Arab political analyst.

''So was his successful wait under siege until various pressures on Syria - Saudi, Palestinian, Soviet - brought a cease-fire. . . .''

One source, well informed on Palestinian politics, says Mr. Arafat and the two main hard-line factions that resisted joining the Syrian-backed rebels are involved in talks to allow Mr. Arafat to pay an visit to moderate Jordan (or even possibly to Egypt), as he wishes to do.

Yet much of the talk among Arab diplomats and political analysts here has concerned an issue technically not related to the prisoner swap: the physical health of Syria's president.

There have been gloomy but unconfirmed Beirut media reports that Mr. Assad, hospitalized recently with what was officially termed appendicitis, is in fact much more seriously ill.

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''If this is true, the entire situation in the Arab world could be affected, '' a prominent Arab analyst here remarked Sunday. Mr. Assad has ruled Syria for 13 years, shrewdly and sometimes violently balancing rival internal and external forces. In recent weeks, he has been maneuvering toward widened influence over Arab politics, and neighboring Lebanon's in particular.

But in a broadcast Sunday, Damascus radio reported that Mr. Assad had received senior officials of the ruling Baath Party.

The report was seen here partly as a move to refute talk that Mr. Assad's health had seriously deteriorated. Other official Syrian reports in recent days have said Mr. Assad met various Syrian officials, including his foriegn minister , most recently on Saturday.

A French journalist was ordered from Syria for reporting Mr. Assad had suffered a heart attack rather than a appendicitis.

Still, there has been no sign Mr. Assad has met any foreign visitor since his illness. And informed sources here maintained Saturday that a prominent medical specialist had gone to Syria, apparently to examine the President.

Mr. Arafat is understood to have told a recent Palestinian visitor in Tripoli that the President's illness is so serious that Assad is ''finished.''

Mr. Arafat implied this was one reason he had opted to tough it out in Tripoli despite the recent siege by Syrian-backed rebels, and suggested he hoped to remain in Tripoli at least until developments in Syria became clearer.

He told reporters Saturday a firm decision on his departure could be expected within 48 hours.

Lebanese newspapers, which usually steer clear of issues like a Syrian leader's health, have fueled the speculation about Mr. Assad.

One, on Sunday, went so far as to cite ''generally well informed sources'' as saying he is in a coma.

The reported Assad illness comes at a time when he had confounded naysayers by emerging strengthened from Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Lebanon's dominant Maronite Christians, including President Amin Gemayel, have been moving to bury enmity with Syria, easing past calls for early withdrawl of Syria's some 40,000 troops in Lebanon.

The Gemayel government - amid what one Lebanese source terms ''an understanding attitude'' from Washington - has also moved toward meeting Syrian objections to this May's Lebanese peace pact with Israel.

Typifying the new mood, the radio station of the Gemayel family's Phalangist party, in citing reports Saturday that Mr. Assad was gravely ill, stressed it was merely relaying others' reports and not independently suggesting Mr. Assad's health was in serious question.

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