news services
updated 6/1/2008 6:45:58 AM ET 2008-06-01T10:45:58

Israel freed a convicted Hezbollah spy on Sunday and sent him back to Lebanon, while Hezbollah turned over the remains of what it said were dead Israeli soldiers — in what could be the preliminary stage of a larger prisoner exchange between the bitter enemies.

It was not immediately clear whether the sides' had struck a deal to secure the exchange. Lebanese political sources said last Monday that indirect talks between Israel and Hezbollah over a broader prisoner exchange had made major progress.

Nasim Nisr, released after a six-year jail term, was greeted by Hezbollah officials in the southern village of Naqoura, where the group unexpectedly announced the release of the soldiers' remains.

"We today are handing over some of the remains of a number of Israeli soldiers who were killed in the July war and who the Israeli army left in Lebanon," Hezbollah security official Wafik Safa said upon Nisr's arrival.

'Nervous but happy'
Nisr, 39, was born in Lebanon to a Jewish Lebanese mother and a Shiite Muslim father. Because of his Jewish ancestry, he later moved to Israel and became a citizen, and married twice. He has a 10-year-old son from his first wife and two daughters, aged 10 and 7, from his current wife.

Nisr was "nervous but happy," said his lawyer, Smadar Ben-Natan.

"I certainly hope that this heralds a prisoner swap deal in the near future," said Ben-Natan, who represents two of the Lebanese prisoners still held by Israel.

Hezbollah fighters, supporters and officials gathered in Naqoura for a rally to welcome him home.

In October, Israel and Hezbollah exchanged the remains of an Israeli civilian for a captive Hezbollah fighter and the bodies of two other Lebanese guerrillas killed in the 2006 war.

German mediation efforts
Nisr's release had raised speculation of progress in German mediation efforts to secure the broader prisoner swap, which would include two soldiers captured in a raid along the border in 2006 that touched off the 34-day war.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in a speech last week, reiterated his vow that all Lebanese prisoners, including the long-held Samir Qantar, would be released soon.

Israel holds about 10 Lebanese, including Qantar, widely seen as key to any deal with Hezbollah on returning the two soldiers. Hezbollah has refused to say whether the two men are dead or alive.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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