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Progress Reported in Israel-Hezbollah Prisoner Exchange Negotiations - 2003-09-26

Israeli officials say Germany is ready to release an Iranian and a Lebanese prisoner to help Israel secure the return of its missing soldiers. The offer comes as Israel is attempting to conclude a prisoner swap with the militant Islamic group, Hezbollah, in Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon says that prisoners held in Europe might be part of an agreement with the Hezbollah. The prisoners are being held in German jails.

Israeli media reported that the prisoners, one Iranian and one Lebanese, were convicted in 1997 for their role in the murder of a Kurdish-Iranian dissident in a Berlin restaurant in September 1992.

German mediators are involved in the negotiations between Israel and the Hezbollah, which is funded by Iran.

Hezbollah has been holding Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum captive since October 2000.

The militant Lebanese group also has the remains of three Israeli soldiers, killed during a kidnapping operation along the Lebanese border in the same period.

As part of a possible deal with the Hezbollah, Israel is considering releasing two prominent Lebanese prisoners, and setting free hundreds of Palestinian detainees. In return, Israel is demanding Mr. Tannenbuam be released and the bodies of the three soldiers returned.

Israel is also demanding information on the fate of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

Israeli officials say Mr. Arad was held captive in Lebanon for two years, before being handed over to the Iranian government.

On Friday, Israel's High Court ruled that Mr. Arad's family be given a copy of an Israeli government commission report on his disappearance.

The copy, however, is to be censored by the Israeli military to prevent the disclosure of what it says is sensitive information related to the nation's security.