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Arab, Israeli Prisoners Released in Germany Despite Suicide Bombing - 2004-01-29


Arab prisoners who had been held by Israel were freed at a military airfield in Germany, in exchange for an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. The high-security exchange was part of a German-mediated deal between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, that also involved the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

Aircraft from Israel and Lebanon arrived in Cologne early in the morning, carrying the people and the bodies for the exchange. Israeli experts spent several hours confirming the identity of the three bodies.

Once that was done, the exchange happened, and Israel released several hundred Palestinian prisoners on the West Bank and delivered the bodies of 59 Arab fighters to the Israel-Lebanon border.

In the early afternoon, the two planes left Cologne - one carrying about 36 mainly Lebanese prisoners heading to Beirut, and the other with the remains of three Israeli soldiers and the freed Israeli businessman heading for Tel Aviv.

The complex exchange mediated by Germany happened without a hitch, despite the deadly suicide bombing by Palestinian militants in Jerusalem.

Security was high at the Cologne-Wahn military airbase as the two jets landed - one painted in the colors of the Israeli air force, the other a German military plane.

The planes stood side-by-side in a hangar as forensic experts took approximately four hours to positively identify the three bodies from Beirut as the Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in October of 2000.

Israel insisted on confirming the identities before it would release its prisoners in exchange for the remains and kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum.

In a further part of the deal Germany spent three-years negotiating, Hezbollah is expected to provide Israel with information about its missing air force navigator Ron Arad, who was captured in Lebanon in 1986.

If that information is delivered, Israel has agreed to release Lebanese militant Samir Qantar, who has been held in Israeli jails since 1979.

In the exchange, Israel released Senior Hezbollah official Sheikh Abdul Karim Obeid, who it kidnapped in 1989, apparently hoping to trade him for Ron Arad.

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