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Israel Prepares for Possible Prisoner Exchange with Hezbollah - 2003-08-26

Israel says it is preparing the ground for a possible exchange of prisoners with the militant Islamic group Hezbollah in Lebanon. The plans follow the disclosure by a German mediator that at least one Israeli held captive by the State Department-designated terrorist group is alive.

Israeli officials said they had received confirmation from a top German official that an Israeli man captured by Hezbollah three years ago is still being held by the militant group in Lebanon.

The official, from the German secret services, convinced Israel to start taking steps to build confidence between the two sides ahead of formal negotiations to secure his release.

On his advice, Israel says it handed over to Lebanon on Monday the bodies of two Hezbollah activists killed in fighting more than three years ago.

The gesture was seen as the first move toward negotiations for the return of Hezbollah prisoners in exchange for the Israeli, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who is reported to be in reasonable health.

Israeli officials say Mr. Tannenbaum was visited two days ago by the German official involved in the mediation efforts. The official was the first intermediary to see the Israeli since his capture.

Earlier this year, Hezbollah supreme leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said his organization was holding four Israeli prisoners. Sheikh Nassrallah said Mr. Tannenbaum was still alive, but that the fate of the other three captives is "not known."

Mr. Tannenbaum, a reserve colonel in the Israeli armed forces, has reportedly suffered from poor health in recent years and in need of a constant supply of medicines.

The Hezbollah is demanding the release of dozens of Lebanese held in Israel, and it appears to believe it will soon be entering into negotiations through German mediators to secure their freedom in exchange for Mr. Tannenbaum.