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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 January, 2004, 13:51 GMT
Sharon defends prisoner swap deal

David Chazan
BBC News, Jerusalem

Ron Arad
Controversially, Israeli pilot Ron Arad is not included in the swap
The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, has been defending a prisoner exchange between his government and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.

The deal has been criticised by some right-wing Israeli politicians who have argued that it could strengthen Lebanese and Palestinian militants.

Palestinian officials have welcomed the swap.

The German government has been mediating in the deal, which took three years to negotiate.

Swap controversial

Ariel Sharon said his government had made a correct and moral decision.

It has agreed to exchange more than 400 Lebanese, Palestinian and other Arab prisoners for an Israeli businessman captured by Hezbollah and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.

The swap has been controversial in Israel because it did not include a missing air force navigator, Ron Arad, shot down over Lebanon in 1986.

His relatives have criticised the deal because of his exclusion in the swap.

Now, Mr Sharon says he has received assurances that Hezbollah will make every effort to find out what happened to him.

'Just a few details left'

It is expected that the prisoner exchange will go ahead this week, although aides of Mr Sharon said the details of how it will happen were still being finalised.

The Israeli cabinet approved the deal in November but it did not go ahead, because Israel rejected Hezbollah's demand that it release a Lebanese militant, Samir Kuntar, convicted of killing several Israeli civilians.

It is now being reported that he may be freed, provided that Israel receives information about the fate of Ron Arad.

Palestinian officials have welcomed the swap, saying it creates a window of hope for some 7,500 Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel.

News of the release has given Mr Sharon some relief from accusations of corruption and speculation in the Israeli media that he may soon face bribery charges.

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