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Page last updated at 17:11 GMT, Wednesday, 2 July 2008 18:11 UK

Hezbollah confirms prisoner swap

Eldad Regev (left) and Ehud Goldwasser - file photos
Eldad Regev (left) and Ehud Goldwasser were captured in 2006

The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group has said it will hand over two captured Israeli soldiers in exchange for five Lebanese prisoners.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah also said the group would provide information on missing Israeli airman Ron Arad.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said he believes the two soldiers are dead. Hezbollah has not confirmed that.

Their capture triggered Israel's 2006 offensive against Hezbollah. Israeli ministers approved the swap on Sunday.

Sheikh Nasrallah's comments - Hezbollah's first public confirmation of the deal - came as the UK government announced it was putting the group's military wing on its list of banned organisations.

Cross-border raid

Mr Nasrallah said he expected the prisoner exchange to be completed within one to two weeks.

Speaking at a televised news conference in Beirut, he said: "I officially announce that we accept this deal."

Israeli air strike on Beirut suburb (4 Aug 2006)
The two soldiers' capture triggered a war between Israel and Hezbollah

Reports say Samir Qantar, who has been in jail since 1979 for his part in a deadly guerrilla raid, will be among the Lebanese prisoners handed over by Israel.

An unspecified number of Palestinians are also expected to be released from jail in Israel.

In addition, Mr Nasrallah said Israel had agreed to return the bodies of dozens of Lebanese and other fighters.

Responding to the UK government's decision to place Hezbollah's militant wing on a list of illegal organisations, Mr Nasrallah said he considered it "an honour" showing the group was "on the right path".

The BBC's Wyre Davis, in Beirut, says many Israelis have expressed their discomfort about the exchange, which in the Arab world is being widely portrayed as a victory for Hezbollah.

The release of Qantar is particularly controversial in Israel, our correspondent adds, because of his role in the deaths of three Israelis, among them a young girl.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a critic of the Hezbollah movement, nonetheless welcomed the deal, describing it as a "huge failure" for Israeli policy.

"The success of Hezbollah in the negotiations... is a national success for the party and for the struggle of the Lebanese because it secured national goals which Israel always refused to respect," a statement from his office said.

Speculation

Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were seized in a cross-border raid into Israel, triggering a 34-day war between Israel and the Hezbollah movement.

Israeli pilot Ron Arad has been missing since he bailed out of his plane over Lebanon in 1986 and was captured by Shia militiamen.

His fate is unknown and has been the subject of much speculation in Israel over the past two decades.

Another Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, remains a prisoner of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

He was seized in June 2006 during a raid on an Israeli army position on the edge of the Gaza Strip. Hamas has said it would consider releasing him as part of a prisoner exchange.


SEE ALSO
Israel approves prisoner exchange
29 Jun 08 |  Middle East
Who are the Mid-East prisoners?
31 Mar 08 |  Middle East
Remains 'were from five Israelis'
03 Jun 08 |  Middle East
Quick guide: Hezbollah
22 Aug 06 |  Middle East


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