Nasrallah hints progress in prisoner swap talks

Hizbullah leader says Samir Kuntar will be returned to Lebanon soon.

Regev Goldwasser 224.88 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Regev Goldwasser 224.88
(photo credit: Channel 10)
Jerusalem had no official word Monday night on the possibility of an imminent prisoner exchange with Hizbullah, after the organization's leader said in a speech broadcast to thousands of supporters in Beirut that he expected Israel to release a number of Lebanese prisoners "very soon." "Soon Samir Kuntar and his brothers will be among you. Very soon," Hizbullah head Hassan Nasrallah said. Kuntar has been in prison since 1979, when he led a terrorist attack in Nahariya that led to the death of policeman Eliyahu Shahar, and Danny Haran and his two young daughters. Israeli security sources confirmed, however, that a deal was taking shape that could include the return of captured soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser in exchange for Kuntar, four Hizbullah prisoners, 10 bodies of Hizbullah men killed in clashes with the IDF, and Nasim Nasser, a Lebanese-born Israeli Jew who converted to Islam and recently finished a six-year prison sentence for spying for Hizbullah. Since Hizbullah has never provided Israel with any sign of life from the two kidnapped soldiers, there has been growing skepticism in the defense establishment over whether Goldwasser and Regev are alive. Neither the Prime Minister's Office nor the Foreign Ministry would confirm the report, and Defense Ministry officials said that there was no deal in the offing for late Monday evening or Tuesday. Israel and Hizbullah have been holding indirect negotiations for months through German mediator Gerhard Konrad, but no developments have been announced since the body of civilian Gavriel Daweet was returned to Israel in exchange for a Hizbullah prisoner and the bodies of two Hizbullah fighters last October. Shlomo Goldwasser, father of Ehud, said that he was not aware of any recent progress in negotiations to free his son. If Nasrallah "wants to appear as the savior of his prisoners, he should allow the Red Cross to meet our sons, just as they're allowed to meet with the [Lebanese] prisoners," he said. Goldwasser's mother, Miki, told The Jerusalem Post that the only thing she knew about an imminent deal was what she heard on the news, and that she had not been contacted or updated by any official. "There is nothing new," she said. Israel reportedly made it clear to Hizbullah recently that it would be unwilling to release any Palestinian prisoners as part of a deal, and would cut off negotiations with the organization if it continued to demand the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners. Israel fears that Hizbullah's stature in the Arab world would rise enormously if it managed to win the release of Palestinian prisoners. In March, Nasrallah said that secret UN-mediated negotiations with Israel for a prisoner swap were continuing despite the assassination a month before of Hizbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus. Nasrallah made his comments on Monday at a rally attended by tens of thousands of people in south Beirut to mark the anniversary of Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Hizbullah has held Regev and Goldwasser since July 2006, when it captured them in a cross-border raid that triggered the Second Lebanon War. Hizbullah has said it would only release the soldiers in a prisoner exchange with Israel. In Israel on Monday night, television news reports said, without divulging sources, that a deal for a swap was near completion. Government spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment on the TV reports. Earlier in the day, Reuters reported that indirect talks on a prisoner exchange sponsored by the UN had made "major progress" and were close to a breakthrough. According to the Reuters report, Lebanese political sources stated that talks with Hizbullah officials, run by the German mediator, were held in Beirut last week. The sources gave no further details. The IDF has reported that Regev and Goldwasser were seriously wounded when captured, and Hizbullah has given no definite report as to whether or not the two are alive. Israel has in the past tied the release of Kuntar to information on missing IDF airman Ron Arad, and is expected to demand information on Arad if Kuntar is to be included in this deal. The fate of Arad, the air force navigator who disappeared after his plane went down in Lebanon in 1986, is unknown. Nasrallah has said a thorough search has not turned up any news about him. Kuntar, a Lebanese Druse, is serving jail terms totaling 542 years for his part in the 1979 terrorist murders in Nahariya. He is the longest-serving of the Lebanese prisoners that Israel is holding. Yaakov Katz, Tovah Lazaroff and AP contributed to this report.