BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Four Belgians held hostage in the Middle East since they were seized from a pleasure boat in November 1987 by a radical Palestinian group were freed and returned to Belgium Saturday, officials said.
In exchange, a Palestinian held in Belgian jails since a July 1980 hand grenade attack on a group of Jewish children in Antwerp was freed by Belgian authorities. One Jewish boy was killed and nearly 20 were injured in the attack.
The foreign ministry declined to say where the exchange took place. The deal had been negotiated for months.
The four Belgian hostages arrived in a small jet Saturday night at a military airbase in Coxyde, on Belgium's North Sea coast, and were then flown by helicopter to a military hospital near Brussels for medical exams.
There are still 12 Western nationals held hostage by pro-Iranian Muslim fundamentalist groups in secret hideouts in Lebanon. Among them are six U.S. nationals, three Britons, two Germans and one Italian.
The Beirut-based Fatah-Revolutionary Council, the terrorist group of Abu Nidal, said earlier in the week that on the request of the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Gadhafi, it would free the four Belgian hostages, who were seized from the pleasure boat 'Silco' in the eastern Mediterranean.
The spokesman, Walid Khaled, was not available for comment Saturday on the Belgian government's announcement.
The Belgians freed were Emmanuel Houtekins, 45; his wife, Godelieve Kets, 51, and their two children, Laurent, 20, and Valerie, 19.
'I am extremely happy to be able to announce that after so many years of separation and several uncertain months, they are in an airplane and will land in Belgium tonight,' Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens announced shortly before their arrival. 'Their state of health is excellent.'
Eyskens telephoned family members in Belgium Saturday to inform them of their relatives' freedom. The sister of Godelieve Kets spoke of her 'joy to learn of the freedom of my sister,' but a reunion was not likely until sometime on Sunday.
Belgian officials refused to say where the Palestinian freed from a Belgian jail was taken to, but confirmed he had left Belgium.
Said Nasser, convicted in the July 1980 hand-grenade attack, was imprisoned at a jail in Louvain, near Brussels. Under Belgian law, a prisoner serving a life term can win release after 10 years for good behavior.
Four others also seized from the pleasure ship 'Silco' had previously been released.
The brother of Emmanuel Houtekins, Fernand, his French girlfriend Jacqueline Valente and their baby daughter Sophie, born in captivity, were released by the Fatah-Revolutionary Council in Beirut last April following an appeal by Gadhafi for the release of all hostages.
Valente's two daughters from a previous marriage were released in December 1988 in Libya, also after intervention by Gadhafi.
Eyskens said he could not reveal many details concerning the release of the last four hostages. He also declined to say whether the four had been released at the same place as Said Nasser, who reportedly left jail on Saturday morning.
'It was extremely difficult to obtain this result and there is an aspect that must remain confidential,' the foreign minister said.
He also said the four former hostages needed peace and quiet after their return to Belgium, because 'they must absorb the shock of their liberation after so many years.'
The Belgian prime minister, Wilfried Martens, also declined to disclose details of their release.
He said the release of Said Nasser was 'within the legality' of Belgian law, and confirmed that his freedom was 'one condition' to obtain the release of the Belgian hostages.