Israel and Hizbollah agree prisoner swap
( 2004-01-25 09:36) (Agencies)
Israel and Lebanon's Hizbollah guerrilla group said on Saturday they had agreed to a German-mediated prisoner swap deal after more than three years of tortuous on-off negotiations.
The two sworn enemies confirmed an announcement by the German government that they would exchange within a week an Israeli businessman and three Israeli soldiers presumed dead for 400 Palestinian, 23 Lebanese and 12 Arab prisoners.
"With this agreement Israel and Hizbollah have achieved a breakthrough in seeking to soothe one of the most painful consequences of the Middle East conflict," the German statement said.
The agreement came days after Hizbollah fire killed an Israeli soldier and wounded another on the Lebanese-Israeli border, triggering Israeli air raids on Hizbollah positions in south Lebanon.
Hizbollah guerrillas helped force Israel to end its 22-year occupation and withdraw from south Lebanon in 2000.
Details of the agreement were released by the German Embassy in Beirut, which called it "an understanding in humanitarian issues."
In a first stage, Hizbollah will repatriate Elhanan Tannenbaum, a businessman and former army officer abducted in 2000, and three soldiers, presumed dead, who were captured in a disputed border area of southern Lebanon.
In return, Israel will release 400 Palestinians arrested in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as well as 23 Lebanese, five Syrian, three Moroccan, three Sudanese and one Libyan prisoner, and a German accused of being an Islamic militant planning attacks on Israel.
Under the terms of the agreement, Israel will also hand over detailed maps of land mines lain in southern Lebanon, return the remains of 59 guerrillas killed in action and reveal the fate of 24 others missing in action.
Shortly after the German statement, Israel and Hizbollah confirmed a deal had been reached.
"In exchange for the return of the kidnapped Israelis the State of Israel will release prisoners from their places of detention in Israeli territory," a statement from the Israeli Prime Minister's Office said.
The statement thanked the German government, but did not mention Hizbollah.
Yuval Shteinitz, an Israeli legislator of the governing Likud Party who heads parliament's foreign affairs and defense committee, condemned the deal as lop-sided. "It will increase the danger that Israelis will be kidnapped," he said.
The guerrilla group said in a statement: "Hizbollah confirms what was announced by the German mediator about an agreement on exchanging captives and prisoners with the Israeli enemy, and confirms the details in the German announcement."
It said Hizbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah would hold a news conference on Sunday to explain the deal.
Hizbollah television gave the names of the 23 Lebanese to be released, including prominent prisoners Abdul Karim Obeid and Mustapha al-Dirani.
"We expect the deal to be implemented over the course of the next week," German government intelligence coordinator Ernst Uhrlau told reporters. He said the prisoners would probably first be flown to Germany before being flown home.
A second swap will follow if both sides can clarify the fate of Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon during a 1986 bombing raid. Many in Israel had demanded he be included in any swap agreement.
The Israeli government confirmed it would not release Qantar until it received "concrete information about the fate of the navigator Ron Arad and his return home."
Uhrlau said Iran, long a backer of Hizbollah, had played a helpful role in the talks. Asked if Iran had helped put pressure on the guerrillas, he said: "Iran can be very persuasive in its arguments."
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