- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

TEL AVIV — A plane carrying 36 Arab prisoners took off for Germany today in the first leg of a long-delayed prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas, the Israeli army reported.

Almost simultaneously, a German plane carrying former captive businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers — Benny Avraham, Omar Suweid and Adi Avitan — left Beirut for Germany as part of the exchange.

Under the German-mediated swap, expected to be completed later today, Israel is to release 436 prisoners in exchange for the businessman and the soldiers’ bodies. Most of the prisoners are Palestinians but the 36, including two Lebanese guerrilla leaders, are from other countries.

The German plane flew out of Beirut after Hezbollah handed over Mr. Tannenbaum and the bodies to a German mediator.

Hezbollah’s television station showed footage of three wooden coffins being loaded onto a German plane at the airport in Beirut. Mr. Tannenbaum also was shown walking to an aircraft due to set off for Cologne, Germany.

Mr. Tannenbaum, whose hair appeared to have grayed during more than three years in Lebanon, earlier told the station that his captors had looked after him well.

Earlier, a team of Israeli forensic scientists arrived in Germany to help verify the identity of the three dead soldiers, who were abducted on a border patrol in 2000. The go-ahead for the exchange depended on the verification.

The exchange between Israel and the Lebanese group marks the most intricate and complicated prisoner swap in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is to take place in seven locations spread over three countries.

Israel has scheduled a memorial ceremony for the three soldiers, and Arabs in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories are planning huge celebrations to mark the exchange.

As the final medical inspections of the Arab prisoners were carried out yesterday, Israeli officials said they are crossing their fingers that there wouldn’t be last-minute glitches in what is planned to be a carefully synchronized exchange that will take most of the day.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Supreme Court yesterday rejected a last-minute appeal by a terror victims association against the release of the Arab prisoners.

“All sides concerned are pretty worried because it’s such a complicated mission,” said a senior security official. “The potential of something going wrong is very big.”

Israel’s government agreed to the lopsided deal even though it was widely criticized as a victory for Hezbollah. Officials said it was accepted to make good on an unwritten but hallowed commitment to Israeli families to secure the release of every soldier taken prisoner.

The deal also is supposed to set the stage for talks about the fate of Ron Arad, the Israeli air force navigator captured in 1986, whose location and condition are unknown.

Information on Mr. Arad is tied to the release of Samir Kuntar, the longest-held Lebanese prisoner.

“We’ve reached a milestone, but not the destination,” German mediator Ernst Uhrlau told the German newspaper Die Zeit, the Associated Press reported.

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