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Israel, Hizbollah Agree on Prisoner Swap - 2004-01-25

Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon, says he has hopes of finding out the fate of Captain Ron Arad who has been missing in action for nearly two decades. Mr. Sharon says this information is expected from negotiations with the militant Islamic group Hezbollah, which has agreed on a prisoner swap with Israel.

Mr. Sharon says he has been assured that the Hezbollah will make every effort in coming months to help provide intelligence on the whereabouts of Captain Arad, who has been missing for 17 years.

The prime minister told his cabinet the fate of Captain Arad would be addressed in a second phase of negotiations with the Hezbollah, once an exchange of prisoners is completed this week.

The first stage is to involve the release of 35 Arabs from various countries, including Lebanon, and about 400 Palestinian prisoners.

In return, Hezbollah will hand over an Israeli businessman, Elhanan Tannenbaum, and the bodies of three soldiers, all kidnapped by the organization in October 2000.

Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, told a news conference in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, that the prisoners would be exchanged Thursday.

Hezbollah is listed by the State Department as a terrorist organization and is regarded as one of Israel's bitterest enemies.

Nevertheless, Mr. Sharon insists that Israel made what he called a correct, moral and responsible decision to strike a deal with the Hezbollah. He says the agreement includes a system in which all sides must cooperate fully, until Israel discovers the fate of Captain Arad and secures his return - something Mr. Sharon hopes will happen in the near future.

German government mediators who helped negotiate the prisoner exchange say information about Captain Arad could come to light within the next few months. He was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and held in captivity there for more than a year. His whereabouts since then remains unknown.

Israel believes that Iran, a supporter of the Hezbollah, may know what happened to Captain Arad.