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Hezbollah sees Israeli prisoner swap this month

2/07/2008 - 17:46

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon's Hezbollah said on Wednesday ithad agreed to a U.N.-mediated deal to exchange prisoners withIsrael and expected the swap to take place around the middle ofthis month.

"We have accepted this agreement and consider it a greataccomplishment," said Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of theIranian-backed group, confirming Hezbollah's acceptance of adeal approved by Israel on Sunday.

The exchange should take place around July 15 or "a littlebefore or a little after", Nasrallah said. "I think in one totwo weeks the issue will be completed."

Under the deal, Hezbollah will return two Israeli soldierswhose capture on July 12, 2006 triggered a 34-day war with theJewish state. They are believed dead but Nasrallah refused togive any information on their condition.

Hezbollah seized the soldiers during a raid into northernIsrael, saying it planned to use them to negotiate an exchange.

"We have completed the whole mission," Nasrallah said, inreference to the group's aim of securing the release of allLebanese held by Israel.

The Jewish state will hand over five Lebanese prisoners andthe remains of around 200 Lebanese, Palestinians and otherArabs who infiltrated northern Israel.

BARGAINING CHIP

The prisoners include Samir Qantar, the most prominentLebanese held by Israel. He was serving a life sentence forkilling a man and his 4-year-old daughter during a 1979 raid onthe northern Israeli coastal town of Nahariya.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had described Qantar asthe last "bargaining chip" for word on the fate of Israeli airforce navigator Ron Arad, who bailed out of his plane during abombing raid on Lebanon in 1986.

Nasrallah said the group would in a day or two hand over areport on Arad's fate. His trail was lost in 1988 while he wasin the hands of Shi'ite militiamen.

Hezbollah had reached a "firm conclusion" on what hadhappened to him, Nasrallah said, without going into details.Nasrallah has in the past said he believed Arad was dead butdid not know the location of his remains.

As part of the deal, negotiated by a German intelligenceofficer, Nasrallah said he would write to U.N.Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asking him to help secure therelease of Palestinians held by Israel, especially women andchildren.

Nasrallah said the negotiator would also receive a reportfrom Israel on the fate of four Iranian diplomats who werekidnapped by Christian militiamen during Israel's invasion ofLebanon in 1982.

Iran believes the four to be alive and held in Israeliprisons, Tehran's embassy in Beirut said in a statement onWednesday.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; editing by Andrew Roche)


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