Israel and Hizbollah agree prisoner swap


Israel and Lebanon's Hizbollah guerrilla group said last night 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 landmines lain in southern Lebanon, return the remains of 59 guerrillas killed in action and reveal the fate of 24 others missing in action.