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Israel, Hezbollah Swap Prisoners

Israel and the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah carried out a prisoner exchange Wednesday - swapping five Lebanese prisoners for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. VOA's Jim Teeple has details from our Jerusalem bureau.

Two years after they were abducted in a cross-border raid by Hezbollah guerillas, the remains of Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were brought to the Israeli border in plain black coffins.

Israel is handing over five Lebanese prisoners, including Samir Kantar who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a deadly terrorist attack in 1979. Israel is also releasing the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinians killed in fighting with Israel, over the years.

The prisoner exchange is extremely controversial in Israel because Kantar was found guilty of killing an Israeli man, Danny Haran, and his four-year-old daughter as well as a policeman in the 1979 attack. Israel says Kantar killed the young girl by crushing her head with his rifle butt, something he denies. Another child in the family died after being accidentally smothered by her mother who was hiding from Kantar. Speaking before the prisoner exchange took place, Nina Keren, Danny Haran's mother criticized the deal.

"How can a government give freedom to such a man who did not show mercy to a small four-year-old girl," she said. "I think the government made a big mistake."

Relatives of the policeman killed in the 1979 attack lost a last-minute court appeal to block the prisoner exchange, which was approved by a cabinet vote of 22 to three, Tuesday.

Israel's military strongly argued for the prisoner exchange saying there can be no higher goal that getting Israeli prisoners back home - dead or alive. The widow of Danny Haran also supported the swap, as did the families of the two Israeli soldiers abducted two years ago. Yuli Tamir, Israel's minister of education, says the government did what it had to do.

"Kantar is a very cruel murderer. He murdered a whole family -- two little children and a father," he added. "Nevertheless, we felt we had the responsibility to bring our soldiers back home and the correct responsibility is for the families."

What happened to Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regav remains unclear. At least one of the two men was reported to be alive when they were seized, although both men were said to be badly wounded in the attack that led to their capture.

Israelis are also expressing disappointment that their government could not get more information from Hezbollah about the fate of Ron Arad, the Israeli airman who went missing in Lebanon in 1986.

Hours after Goldwasser and Regav were seized, Israel launched a massive bombing campaign in Lebanon and Hezbollah responded with thousands of rocket attacks against targets in northern Israel. More than one-thousand Lebanese and more than 150 Israelis were killed in the month-long conflict, before a United Nations-mediated ceasefire went into effect.