updated 10/15/2007 3:10:31 PM ET 2007-10-15T19:10:31

Israel returned the bodies of Hezbollah guerillas and released a prisoner on Monday in exchange for the body of an Israeli who drowned in the Mediterranean, Lebanese media said.

The international Red Cross later confirmed only that two Lebanese bodies were exchanged for an Israeli body, but Lebanese and Israeli media both reported that a Lebanese prisoner also was handed over.

Israel’s government said the exchange Monday was linked to efforts to win freedom of two soldiers captured by Hezbollah a year ago.

Although the exchange was limited in scope, it could improve the chances of further exchanges involving the two Israeli soldiers whose capture triggered the conflict last year in which up to 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon, most of them civilians. Israel lost about 160 people in the fighting, most of them soldiers, but failed to win the freedom for its soldiers.

Israel’s Channel 10 TV reported that the country received information as part of the deal, but a gag order prevented release of details.

'An element of balance'
Former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the deal “has an element of balance and should be welcomed.” He said the importance should not be exaggerated, but “it is important that a route of communication has been opened.”

Lebanese troops kept journalists and civilians away from the border and the area where the exchange took place. About 100 people gathered near the army checkpoint.

Among those waiting was Hussein Wizwaz, in his 60s, who came after hearing from Hezbollah that the body of his son would be returned.

Ali Wizwaz, 32, was killed in a border battle with Israeli troops, his father said. But Hussein Wizwaz said he hoped that prisoners would be freed first, including Samir Kantar, held since 1979 for killing three Israelis.

“Those who are alive are more important than the martyrs,” the man said.

Hezbollah’s capture of the two Israeli soldiers during a cross border raid last July sparked a 34-day war between the Shiite Muslim group and Israel. Three other Israeli soldiers were killed in the raid.

Last year, Israeli officials for the first time raised the possibility that the two soldiers held by Hezbollah might not have survived the initial attack. Military officials then said one of the soldiers was critically wounded and the other seriously wounded when they were captured, without giving further details.

Lebanese media said Hezbollah handed over the body of an Israeli civilian who drowned in the Mediterranean and was swept northward by current. In exchange, it obtained the corpse of two slain guerrilla and a prisoner, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency said.

Israel trying to free captured soldiers
In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said the deal was “in the framework of negotiations to return the captured soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.”

Hezbollah has repeated the two soldiers captured last year would be freed only in exchange for freedom of all Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.

Several Hezbollah members were captured during last year’s war. In addition to Kantar, the main Lebanese prisoners held in Israel are Nasim Nisr, a Lebanese-born Israeli captured for having contacts with Hezbollah, and Yehia Skaff, who was detained in 1978 while taking part in a Palestinian militant attack that killed 35 Israelis, are also held in Israel prisoner.

Israel’s Channel 2 TV identified the dead Israeli repatriated Monday as Gabriel Dwait, a Jewish immigrant from Ethiopia, who drowned in the Mediterranean on Jan. 20, 2005. He was 27 at the time.

Eyal Regev, brother of one of the captured soldiers, told the TV station that he hoped this deal would lead to freedom for the two soldiers. “We really hope that what happened today will lead to the big deal that will see them come home.”

“This is not an opening. This does not promise anything for the future,” said well-connected Channel 2 military correspondent Ronni Daniel, reporting from the Israel-Lebanon border after Israel lifted a daylong blackout imposed by the military censor.

Amnon Zichroni, an Israeli lawyer who has dealt with several prisoner exchanges, told Channel 2, “This is a positive sign for the future.”

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