Mohammed Zaatari  /  AP
Fadila Qasfi, wife of Lebanese prisoner Jawad Qasfi, who has been held in Israel for 13 years, watches a televised news conference by the leader of Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in her house in the southern Lebanese village of Sultaniyah on Sunday.
updated 1/25/2004 11:20:13 AM ET 2004-01-25T16:20:13

Israel and Hezbollah guerrillas will exchange prisoners Thursday and Friday, then discuss prospects for more Arab prisoners to be released and look into the case of a long-missing Israeli airman, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah said Sunday.

"After Thursday and Friday, there will be no Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails," Nasrallah told reporters in Beirut. "But the door is still open and the second stage will be very important."

His comments came a day after it was announced that Israel and Hezbollah had concluded a German-mediated agreement to swap prisoners.

Under the first stage of the agreement, Israel is to release 35 prisoners from Arab countries, including 23 Lebanese, as well as 400 Palestinian prisoners. It would be Israel's most significant release of Palestinian prisoners since Ariel Sharon became prime minister three years ago.

Hezbollah is to free Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and three Israeli soldiers -- all captured by the guerrilla group in October 2000. Nasrallah refused to say whether the three Israeli soldiers the group is holding were dead or alive, saying everyone will know their fate on Thursday. Tannenbaum is known to be alive.

Hezbollah guerrillas kidnapped the three Israeli soldiers near the Lebanese-Israeli border in October 2000. Israel has declared Adi Avitan, Beni Avraham and Omar Sawaid dead, but their families still hold out hope they are alive.

More talks planned
Nasrallah confirmed that further talks are planned to secure the release of Kantar, whom Israel is keeping to help win information on its most famous MIA, airman Ron Arad, who is not part of the current deal.

Nasrallah said following the first stage of the exchange, a committee will be formed to seek information on Arad and Iranian diplomats who went missing in Lebanon in 1982 during Israel's invasion of Lebanon.

"Any positive development in the case of Ron Arad will open the way for the release of more Palestinians and Arabs," Nasrallah said.

Nasrallah said Iran had nothing to do with the disappearance of Ron Arad. "I categorically deny this and Iran also denies this," he said in answer to a reporter's question on why Iran was contacted by the German mediator.

He said the Lebanese prisoners will be flown in to an official reception at Beirut's international airport Thursday while the remains of 59 "martyrs" will be handed over to Lebanese authorities at a border crossing in south Lebanon.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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