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Israel on Sunday played down reports in the Arab press, and comments made by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, that contacts were under way to bring about a prisoner swap between Israel and Hizbullah.
Nevertheless, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was scheduled to meet Monday in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Germany played a key role in negotiating a swap in 2004 that included the return of Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers for 429 Arab prisoners in Israeli jails. Germany has indicated it would play a similar role this time as well, if asked.
Senior diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said that Israel was continuing to call for the unconditional release of kidnapped soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev and that it would not negotiate with terrorists.
UN Security Council Resolution 1701 that mandated the cease-fire in Lebanon calls in its preamble for the unconditional release of Goldwasser and Regev and also encourages "efforts aimed at urgently settling the issue of the Lebanese prisoners detained in Israel."
Nasrallah, in his first post-war interview on Sunday, told Lebanese NTV television that contacts were being held to bring about a prisoner swap and that Italy had expressed an interest in playing a lead role.
A senior Italian diplomat said he had no knowledge of Italian efforts in this matter. Nevertheless, Sergio De Gregorio, head of Italy's Senate Defense Committee, said last week that Iranian national security chief Ali Larijani told him he would ask Hizbullah to negotiate with Italy on the matter. He was quoted Sunday as saying that talks could begin in a week.
Nasrallah also said that the UN was involved and that this would take place through the offices of Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, who is considered close to Hizbullah and is reputed to have good ties with the UN.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert spoke with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Sunday and said that the release of the two soldiers was of paramount importance. He said that Resolution 1701 placed the responsibility for their release on the shoulders of the Lebanese government.
Annan will be traveling to Lebanon and Israel later this week.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram reported Sunday that Israel and Hizbullah have already agreed to a German-brokered deal for a prisoner exchange.
The paper quoted high-ranking officials as saying the swap would take place in two to three weeks. According to the paper, Goldwasser and Regev would be handed over to Israel, and Israel would release Lebanese prisoners within the following two days.
The paper also said this would help lead to the release of Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped by Hamas on June 25. Israeli officials could confirm none of this.
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