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Hezbollah head confirms prisoner swap with Israel
Mideast Lebanon Isr 5161235
Hezbollah's leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah speaks at a press conference by video link to reporters in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, July 2, 2008. Nasrallah said Wednesday his group will hand over two captured Israeli soldiers in exchange for five Lebanese prisoners in Israel in the group's first confirmation of the deal which was approved by Israel's Cabinet earlier this week. - photo by Associated Press
    BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah’s leader on Wednesday confirmed for the first time that his group will hand over two captured Israeli soldiers and information on a missing Israeli airman in exchange for five Lebanese prisoners in Israel.
    Israeli officials believe the two soldiers are dead, but Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said he had not given Israel any indication of their fate. He called reports that they are dead ‘‘speculation ... not based on anything tangible.’’
    On Sunday, the day Israel’s Cabinet approved the swap, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he believes Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, snatched in a July 2006 cross-border raid that sparked a war between Israel and Hezbollah, are dead.
    Hezbollah has never confirmed that, and the Red Cross has not been allowed access.
    Speaking to a Beirut news conference by video link, Nasrallah said the U.N.-brokered exchange would take place in mid-July.
    All the Lebanese prisoners slated to be freed by Israel are alive. The longest-held prisoner, Samir Kantar, was serving multiple life terms for infiltrating northern Israel in 1979 and killing three Israelis — a man, his 4-year-old daughter and a police officer.
    Word of Kantar’s inclusion stirred emotions in Israel because of the grisly nature of his crime — witnesses said he crushed the little girl’s skull — and his release could set a new standard for how far Israel is willing to go to repatriate its soldiers.
    Kantar denies crushing the girl’s skull, saying she was killed in the exchange of fire.
    Nasrallah also said he would provide a thorough report with information on missing airman Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. Arad was captured alive by Shiite militants and later disappeared without a trace. His fate remains unknown.
    Nasrallah said he has reached ‘‘absolute conclusions’’ about Arad’s fate after four years of investigations. He did not elaborate. A United Nations-appointed German mediator will arrive in Lebanon within two days to get a detailed report about Arad, he said.
    The bearded, bespectacled Shiite Muslim cleric called negotiations over the prisoner exchange ‘‘long, tough and complicated,’’ and described the results as a ‘‘new victory’’ for Lebanon.
    The deal has been praised in Lebanon even by Hezbollah’s critics, including U.S. and Western-backed Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, who described it as a ‘‘national success.’’
    Israel will also receive the remains of some of its soldiers killed in the Lebanon war, and has agreed to release dozens of bodies and an undisclosed number of Palestinian prisoners.
    In his news conference, Nasrallah also said his Iranian-backed group would welcome an Israeli withdrawal from the Chebaa Farms, a disputed patch of land where the borders of Lebanon, Syria and Israel meet, but wants the land to be handed over to Lebanese authorities.
    If the area is transferred to U.N. peacekeepers, ‘‘we would consider the liberation to be incomplete,’’ he said.
    Lebanon claims the Chebaa Farms area captured by Israel from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war, and an Israeli withdrawal would give the Lebanese government a strong pretext to ask Hezbollah to lay down its arms.
    However, senior Hezbollah officials have repeatedly said that an Israeli withdrawal is not enough to justify disarming.
    Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam contributed to this report.

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