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Israeli cabinet approves Hezbollah prisoner swap
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Israeli cabinet on Sunday approves a prisoners swap deal with the Lebanese movement Hezbollah, which will bring back two kidnapped Israeli soldiers who Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said are already dead.

A majority of the ministers voted in favor of the deal at the end of a cabinet meeting, after Olmert urged the cabinet to greenlight the proposal to exchange Lebanese prisoners with Israeli reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, who were taken away by Hezbollah militants two years ago in an cross-border attack which sparked a month-long war between Israel and Hizbollah.

"At the end of a long process, I have reached the conclusion that as the Israeli Prime Minister I must recommend that you approve the proposal which will bring this painful affair to an end, even at the painful price it requires us to pay," Olmert told his ministers during the meeting.

Olmert added that as far as Israel knows, the two captives are no longer alive, and are believed to have been killed during the abduction or died of their wounds shortly afterwards, marking the first official confirmation of their deaths.

According to a government statement, the Germany-mediated deal would have Israel free five Lebanese militants, including Samir Kuntar, who has been serving four life sentences in Israel since 1979 for murdering the Haran family members and two police officers during an attack on the northern city of Nahariya.

The Jewish state would also repatriate the remains of dozens of slain militants, including eight Hezbollah members, and deliver information on the four missing Iranian diplomats to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Following the implementation of the deal, Israel will release a number of Palestinian prisoners, and the number and identities of the prisoners will be determined "at the sole discretion" of Israel, said the statement.

In addition to the two captured soldiers, Israel will also receive a report on its missing pilot Ron Arad, whose fighter crashed in Lebanon in 1986, as well as remains of Israeli soldiers who died during the 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Although favored by many, the swap deal, which also needs the approval of the Lebanese group's leadership, is also shadowed by doubts. Local daily Ha'aretz said Israel's intelligence and security chiefs had urged the ministers to vote against the swap, saying that such a deal would encourage the militants to carry out more kidnappings.

Family and friends of the two captives, who rallied outside Olmert's office during the cabinet meeting, welcomed the approval, while refusing to believe the deaths without evidence. Hezbollah had so far offered no sign that Goldwasser and Regev are still alive.

Meanwhile, Israel is also negotiating with the Palestinian movement Hamas for the return of another soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was captured by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip in June 2006 and is believed to be alive.

(Xinhua News Agency June 30, 2008)

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