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400 Palestinian Prisoners Released in Israeli Swap with Hezbollah - 2004-01-29

Israel has released about 400 Palestinians and other prisoners as part of a swap with the militant group Hezbollah. Ross Dunn reports from Jerusalem on the exchange, which is taking place in Germany, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Jubilant relatives and friends greeted the 400 Palestinians as they were set free at checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinians could be seen cheering from rooftops as buses ferried some of the prisoners into the West Bank city of Hebron. At the Erez crossing point into the Gaza Strip, relatives helped some of the arriving Palestinians to cut off their plastic handcuffs.

Some among the well-wishers waved the flags of the Hezbollah, an organization that is an arch-enemy of Israel and is listed as a terrorist group by the State Department.

One woman showed her appreciation for the Hezbollah by shouting out for God to protect the group's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

Others expressed hopes that Sheikh Nasrallah might help secure the release of more Palestinian prisoners.

Following the exchange, about 7,000 Palestinians remain in Israeli prisons.

As part of the swap, Hezbollah handed over Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers kidnapped and killed by the organization in October, 2000. The handover took place in Germany.

Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon telephoned Mr. Tannenbaum's family to express his congratulations.

Mr. Sharon was due to attend a ceremony later in honor of the three soldiers.

The Israeli leader says German mediators will soon oversee another round of negotiations with Hezbollah aimed at finding out the fate of missing Israeli airman, Captain Ron Arad.

He was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and held in captivity there for more than year. His whereabouts since then remained unknown.