- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

UPDATED, 7:48 a.m.

ROSH HANIKRA, Israel (AP) — Israeli defense officials say forensics experts have positively identified the remains of two soldiers released by Hezbollah guerrillas.

The identification of the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev sets the stage for completion of a swap with Hezbollah.

Under the deal, Israel is supposed to release five Lebanese prisoners and the remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters.

Hezbollah soldiers captured the soldiers in a cross-border raid two years ago, setting off a monthlong war. Forensic teams investigated the remains for several hours on Wednesday before identifying them.

The defense officials spoke on condition of anonymity pending a formal announcement.

–—

ROSH HANIKRA, Israel (AP) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas turned over to Israel two coffins believed to contain the bodies of Israeli soldiers captured two years ago, setting in motion a dramatic prisoner exchange between the bitter enemies Wednesday.

The swap – mediated by a U.N.-appointed German official who shuttled between the sides for 18 months – is likely to be a significant boost for Hezbollah at a time when the guerrillas are regaining their footing following the blows they suffered in a 2006 war against Israel. It also closes a painful chapter for Israel, which launched a war in against Hezbollah response to the soldiers’ capture in a cross-border raid.

“We are handing over the two Israeli soldiers that were captured by the resistance … and whose fate has been unknown until this moment,” senior Hezbollah security official Wafik Safa said. “Now you know their fate.”

Forensics teams began tests to identify the two bodies in a process that could take several hours, the Israeli army said. Meanwhile, trucks carrying the remains of some 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters began crossing into Lebanon as part of the exchange.

If the bodies are confirmed to be those of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, Israel will turn over five Lebanese prisoners to Hezbollah – including a militant convicted in what is perceived here as a monstrous attack.

The Israeli servicemen had been presumed dead, but there had been no confirmation. Their Hezbollah captors had withheld any information about them since they were captured on July 12, 2006.

Family and friends outside the homes of the soldiers burst into tears as they watched on television as Hamas handed over the coffins to the Red Cross.

An aunt of Regev’s sank to the ground when she saw the coffins appear on a small TV hooked up outside the soldier’s father’s house. Some 50 friends, neighbors and family sobbed, rocked back and forth in prayer or pulled their hair.

“Nasrallah, you will pay,” several vowed, referring to Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Other people in the crowd criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying the soldiers died for nothing.

The family’s neighbor, Simona Adda, 68, said her children had grown up with Regev. “It’s the saddest day for Israel. They kept us waiting until the last second to learn the fate of our sons,” she said, then burst out crying.

The sorrow that swept across Israel with the images of the coffins contrasted sharply with the hero’s welcome that awaited convicted killer Samir Kantar upon his return to a homeland he left 29 years ago to set out on his deadly mission.

Hezbollah supporters set up a makeshift stage in the coastal town of Naqoura and a drum corps awaited the prisoners’ return. On the platform stood a large photograph of a weeping Israeli woman.

A nearby sign read, “Israel is shedding tears of pain.” Another read: “Lebanon is shedding tears of joy.”

An official ceremony was to follow at Beirut Airport with Lebanon’s president, prime minister and parliament speaker in attendendance. Nasrallah was to address what is expected to be a huge celebration at the group’s stronghold south of Beirut.

In the Gaza Strip, controlled by the violently anti-Israel Hamas group, people celebrated in the streets and handed out sweets in support of Hezbollah.

“Today is a great victory for the resistance movements and to Hezbollah,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri. “It shows that the only successful way to free the prisoners is by kidnapping soldiers.”

Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, condemned such reactions. “Samir Kantar is a brutal murderer of children and anybody celebrating him as a hero is trampling on basic human decency,” he said.

Putting aside decades of resistance and breaking what had been a long-held taboo, Israel’s Cabinet gave final approval Tuesday to free Kantar. The swap was codenamed “And the sons shall return.”

Although polls show Israelis solidly endorse the exchange, many see Kantar as the embodiment of evil.

In the dead of night on April 22, 1979, Kantar and three other gunmen made their way in a rubber dinghy from Lebanon to the sleepy Israeli coastal town of Nahariya, five miles south of the border.

There, they killed a policeman who stumbled upon them, then burst into the apartment of Danny Haran, herding him and his 4-year-old daughter out of the house at gunpoint to the beach below, where they were killed.

The attack is seared in Israel’s collective consciousness because witnesses recounted that Kantar shot Danny Haran in front of his child, then killed her by smashing her skull against a rock with his rifle butt.

Haran’s wife, Smadar, who had fled into a crawl space in the family apartment with her 2-year-old daughter, accidentally smothered the child with her hand while trying to stifle her cries.

Kantar, who acted on behalf of a militant Palestinian faction, denies killing the older child and has never expressed remorse over the incident. He was 16 years old at the time.

In addition to the prisoners, Israel also has agreed to release the bodies of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters killed in clashes over the years. Red Cross trucks bearing the bodies also began moving toward the border early Wednesday.

Associated Press writers Hussein Dakroub in Naqoura, Sam Ghattas in Beirut and Ian Deitch in Kiryat Motzkin contributed to this report.

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