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Hezbollah, Israel in partial prisoner swap

NAQOURA, Lebanon (Reuters) - Israel and Hezbollah exchanged the remains of an Israeli civilian on Monday for a captive Lebanese guerrilla and the bodies of two comrades in a U.N.-brokered deal.

Israeli soldiers secure the gate at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing between Israel and Lebanon October 15, 2007. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen

The sworn enemies indicated the swap could bolster U.N. efforts to secure the release of two Israeli soldiers whose capture triggered last year’s war between Israel as well as Hezbollah and Lebanese prisoners held by the Jewish state.

Lebanese sources and Israeli officials said Hezbollah handed over the remains of Gabriel Dwait, an Ethiopian immigrant who drowned in January 2005. A Lebanese source said his body had been washed to the Lebanese coast where fishermen found it and handed it over to Hezbollah.

Israel freed prisoner Hassan Naim Aqil, a Hezbollah fighter captured in the 2006 war, and handed over the bodies of Ali Wizwaz and Mohammed Damashqiah, who had apparently been taken to Israel after they died in the fighting in Lebanon.

In addition to Dwait’s body, Israel received “additional information about other cases” of missing Israelis, an Israeli official said, without giving any further details. Hezbollah confirmed it handed over documents to the U.N. mediator “concerning humanitarian cases”.

A statement issued by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said the swap was “part of the framework of negotiations to return” the two captured soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

A senior Israeli government official described the move as a “confidence-building process” but noted Hezbollah had not given Israel any information about the status of the two soldiers.

“They won’t even say what their situation is,” the official said. “We have no official information on the status of Goldwasser and Regev.”

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Hezbollah said in a statement it hoped the “goodwill gestures” would help the U.N.-appointed mediator to broker the wider prisoner exchange.

Officials from the U.N. and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) facilitated the exchange at the Lebanese frontier town of Naqoura.

A large Hezbollah convoy, with an ambulance carrying the remains of the Israeli, arrived at Naqoura at around 5 p.m. (1400 GMT) to complete the swap, sources and witnesses said.

It left with the prisoner and bodies four hours later. Family members showered the cars with rice in celebration.

“I’m very proud of my son who gave up his life for his nation,” Hussein Wizwaz, father of one of the two guerrillas, told Reuters as he and relatives of other Lebanese prisoners waited at the border.

Several Israeli soldiers have been missing in Lebanon since the 1980s and are presumed dead. But there had been no previous report that an Israeli civilian was missing.

Hezbollah still holds the two Israeli soldiers it seized in July 2006. The abductions triggered the 34-day war with Israel.

The U.N.-appointed mediator, believed to be a German intelligence officer, is working on a deal to get the soldiers exchanged for Lebanese and other prisoners. There has been no word on whether they are alive and, if so, on their condition.

The swap also came four days after Germany said it would grant early release to an Iranian and a Lebanese who were given life prison sentences for the 1992 assassination of a group of dissident Kurdish leaders at a restaurant in Berlin.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Israel last exchanged prisoners in 2004, when Israel released more than 400 Lebanese and other Arab prisoners for an Israeli businessman and the remains of three soldiers.

Additional reporting by Nadim Ladki and Laila Bassam in Beirut, and Avida Landau in Jerusalem