Israel, Hezbollah swap prisoners (Lead, changing datelilne)

July 16th, 2008 - 3:22 pm ICT by IANS  

Tel Aviv/Beirut, July 16 (DPA) A long-anticipated exchange of prisoners between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah got underway Wednesday morning, with officials of the radical Shia organization handing over the bodies of two Israeli soldiers to Red Cross officials on the Lebanese side of the border with Israel. Two black vehicles brought the two black coffins, confirming long speculation about the fate of the two soldiers kidnapped two years ago by Hezbollah.

“Today we are handing to the International Committee of the Red Cross two coffins. We are seeing that they are both dead,” senior Hezbollah official Wafik Safa told reporters at Naqoura, the Lebanese side of the border.

Red Cross officials checked the coffins inside a tent on the Lebanese side of the Naqoura crossing after which they were taken to the Israeli side to be handed over to Red Cross delegates there.

UN-appointed German mediator Gerhard Conrad earlier had met Lebanese officials and then Israeli officials on each side of the border, informing them of the soldiers condition.

The two soldiers, whose abduction two years ago sparked a month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah, are to be indentified on location.

Only after positive identification, will Israel hand over five Lebanese prisoners, convicted killer Samir Kuntar and four Hezbollah prisoners of war captured in the July-August 2006 war.

Israel has declared its side of the border, known as the Rosh Ha’nikra crossing, a closed military zone.

Earlier Wednesday, it transported the five prisoners from their Hadarim prison near Tel Aviv to a military base at the border, where they were awaiting their transfer to Lebanon.

Some 23 Red Cross trucks with the bodies of 199 Lebanese fighters also left an anonymous cemetery for enemy combatants in Amiad, north of the Sea of Galilee, for the border.

Hezbollah meanwhile prepared to celebrate the exchange as a Hezbollah triumph with a symbolic ceremony as prisoners cross the border and organized rallies.

Followers of the movement wearing yellow hats and carrying yellow Hezbollah flags were seen heading towards the Naquora border crossing since the early hours of the morning.

Israeli President Shimon Peres Tuesday signed a pardon for Kuntar, who was convicted by an Israeli court and sentenced to multiple life terms in prison for a 1979 attack into northern Israel, in which he and his men killed four Israelis, including a father and his four-year-old daughter whom they had taken hostage.

Israel’s cabinet Tuesday gave the final approval for the United Nations-mediated, German-brokered deal, with three ministers, including Friedman, voting against it, saying they refused to trade live prisoners for dead soldiers.

Welfare minister Isaac Herzog described the decision to release the fighters as “painful.”

By contrast, the mood on the Lebanese side of the border was summed up on banners that read: “Congratulations to our freed prisoners” and “Our victorious resistance (Hezbollah) managed to free all Lebanese prisoners from the enemy’s prisons.”

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