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Israel, Hezbollah Negotiate Exchange of Prisoners - 2003-09-24

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has confirmed publicly, for the first time, that negotiations are underway with the Hezbollah in Lebanon for an exchange of prisoners. Under the proposal, Hezbollah would agree to hand over Israeli soldiers in return for Lebanese and Palestinian detainees.

Mr. Sharon confirmed that his government is negotiating with the Hezbollah a possible prisoner swap, with the help of German mediators. He says any prisoner exchange would first have to be approved by his cabinet and he will also insist on DNA testing of the bodies of Israeli soldiers to be returned from Lebanon.

Mr. Sharon says his government is "closer than before" to reaching a deal with the Hezbollah, but says the negotiations are still to be completed.

He also emphasized that Israel would not set free Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti as part of the exchange. Mr. Barghouti, who is on trial in an Israeli court for his alleged role in the murder of Israelis, tops the Hezbollah's list of prisoners it wants released.

Israel would be expected to set free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, as well as two top Lebanese guerrilla leaders, Abdel Karem Obeid and Mustafa Dirani. In exchange, Hezbollah would give up Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, who is also a reserve commander in the army and the bodies of three soldiers kidnapped and killed by the Hezbollah in 2000.

Israel is also seeking information on Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1987 and is believed by Israel to be now held in Iran.

In a possible snag to a prisoner swap, the Arad family has filed a legal challenge to prevent the release of a Lebanese prisoner, Mustafa Dirani. He was one of the airman's former captors, and Mr. Arad's family says he must be kept as a possible "bargaining chip" for the release of their son.