COLOGNE, Germany – Israeli forensic experts confirmed the identities of the remains of three soldiers at a German air base on Thursday, clearing the way for a long-awaited prisoner swap with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah (search).
An Israeli air force jet carrying 36 Arab prisoners and a German air force plane carrying businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum (search) and the three Israeli soldiers touched down before dawn Thursday under tight security at the military airport.
They taxied into the same hangar and parked side by side, where a team of forensic experts began immediately examining the remains. Security officials in Israel, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the team positively identified the soldiers' bodies.
The confirmation sets the stage for the exchange to proceed as planned on Thursday.
Under the deal, Israel was releasing a total of 436 prisoners in exchange for Tannenbaum and the soldiers' bodies.
Shortly after the planes landed in Germany, a homicide bomber struck in downtown Jerusalem about 15 yards from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's official residence, killing at least 10 bystanders and wounding about 50 in the deadliest attack in four months. Sharon wasn't in the area at the time, a spokesman said.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled (search) said the prisoner exchange, including the release of hundreds of Palestinians, would go ahead despite the attack.
"We are releasing another 400 Palestinians with a very heavy heart, because we know that these 400 will return very quickly to the cycle of violence," Peled said at the site of the bombing.
The two planes had taken off simultaneously from Israel and Lebanon earlier Thursday. Following the confirmation of the soldiers' remains, Israel was to exchange the 36 prisoners in Germany for Tannenbaum and the bodies.
At the same time, it was freeing 400 Palestinians into the West Bank and Gaza Strip and turning over the remains of 59 Lebanese fighters at the border with Lebanon.
Before takeoff from Beirut early Thursday, Tannenbaum briefly spoke to reporters as he was escorted to the German air force plane.
Israeli reports had said Tannenbaum's health is failing and that he was tortured by Hezbollah — an argument Sharon had cited in pushing for the deal. However, he appeared surprisingly fit and walked without assistance.
"My name is Elhanan Tannenbaum and I am an Israeli citizen," he told The Associated Press as he walked to the plane. Asked about his treatment, he replied: "I was treated very well by the Hezbollah."
The jets touched down just after 7 a.m. at Cologne's Wahn Airport. Military police ringed the area and kept journalists and cameras away. A German government spokesman refused comment.
The deal boosts Hezbollah's standing in the region because of its success in freeing Palestinian prisoners. In addition to getting the bodies and the businessman, Israel wins its first pledge of concrete information about Ron Arad, an airman captured in 1986 in Lebanon.
The two most prominent Arab prisoners being released were former Lebanese guerrilla leaders Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, whom Israel had kidnapped in 1989 and 1994, respectively, as bargaining chips for Arad. The two men, in handcuffs, wore track suits as they boarded the Israeli plane. Obeid carried a plastic bag with some clothes.
A German citizen accused of belonging to Hezbollah also was included. None of the Palestinians were prominent uprising leaders.
Israel began busing the Palestinians out of a prison in the south to a series of checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli television showed pictures of the smiling Palestinians — wearing white plastic handcuffs — on board the buses. The Palestinians flashed victory signs with their hands. Some held a copy of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and made hand signals praising God.
Israel also brought the remains of the Lebanese militants to the border with Lebanon.
Since Israel's founding in 1948, Israel has participated in several dozen prisoner exchanges with its Arab neighbors, many of them lopsided in the Arabs' favor. In 1985, Israel freed 1,150 Palestinians in exchange for three soldiers held in Lebanon.
Some Israelis complain that the price is too high and hands Hezbollah a victory that could help it destabilize the area.
Many Palestinians expressed disappointment with the deal, complaining that no prominent uprising figures are included. Also, most of the 400 were scheduled to be released later this year.
Tannenbaum was scheduled to return to Israel with the remains. Israel scheduled a memorial ceremony for the fallen soldiers upon their return.
The soldiers, Beni Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad, were captured in October 2000 after a Hezbollah roadside bomb hit their jeep during a patrol along the Lebanese border.
Hezbollah said on its television channel Thursday that the three were dead. The soldiers' families had clung to hopes the men might somehow return alive.
Avraham's sister Dafna told Israel's Channel 10 that she had recently returned to Israel from a job in Russia.
"When I got off the plane and saw my parents, I imagined that on Thursday I would see my brother the same way," she said.
Tannenbaum, who was also captured in October 2000 while conducting a business deal in an Arab country, faces questioning upon his return. Israeli officials would say only that Tannenbaum's first stop would be a hospital for medical treatment.
Tannenbaum told Al Manar that he had come to Lebanon in search of information about airman Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and captured alive.
After the swap is completed, the sides are to launch a second stage of negotiations, with Israel to receive concrete information on Arad within three months. In exchange, Israel would release Samir Kantar, a Lebanese militant who has been in an Israeli prison since 1979 for killing three Israelis.
Hezbollah said it planned a welcoming ceremony for its returning prisoners in Beirut later Thursday.