NAQOURA, Lebanon – Israeli returned the bodies of Hezbollah guerillas and a Lebanese prisoner on Monday in exchange for the body of an Israeli who drowned in Lebanon, the Lebanese state news agency reported.
An Israeli military vehicle carrying the bodies of the dead Lebanese crossed into the no man's zone along the border at sundown and returning shortly afterward, crossing paths with Lebanese ambulances headed the other way. Officials did not immediately confirm what was inside the vehicle.
The state-run National News Agency reported that Hezbollah gave the International Red Cross the body of Israeli civilian and that the ICRC took custody from Israel of the two dead guerrillas and a prisoner.
Although the exchange Monday was limited in scope, it could improve the chances of further exchanges involving the two Israeli soldiers whose capture triggered the conflict last year in which up to 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon, most of them civilians. Israel lost about 160 people in the fighting, most of them soldiers, but failed to win the freedom for its soldiers.
Earlier at Naqoura, a fishing port which includes the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, two ambulances drove through the last Lebanese army checkpoint more than a mile from the Israeli border late afternoon, apparently to pick up the bodies of the Hezbollah guerrillas.
Lebanese troops kept journalists and civilians away from the border and the area where the swap was taking place. About 100 people gathered near the army checkpoint.
Among those waiting was Hussein Wizwaz, in his 60s, who came after hearing from Hezbollah that the body of his son would be repatriated.
Ali Wizwaz, 32, was killed in a major ground battle with Israeli troops in the border village of Maroun al-Ras, his father said.
"I heard on television that there will be some prisoner exchange," the man said, adding that he contacted a Hezbollah office and was informed that the bodies of his son as well as guerrilla Mohammed Dimashqiyeh would be returned.
"I wish Samir Kantar and his comrades would be set free before my son, the martyr, because those who are alive are more important than the martyrs," the man said. Kantar is the longest-held Lebanese in Israel, imprisoned since 1979 for killing three Israelis.
Lebanon's opposition includes the militant group Hezbollah, whose capture of two Israeli soldiers during a cross border raid last July sparked a 34-day war between the Shiite Muslim group and Israel. Three other Israeli soldiers were killed in the raid.
Last year, Israeli officials for the first time raised the possibility that the two soldiers held by Hezbollah might not have survived the initial attack. Military officials then said one of the soldiers was critically wounded and the other seriously wounded when they were captured, without giving further details.
Hezbollah has repeated the two soldiers captured last year would be freed only in exchange for freedom of all Lebanese prisoners held in Israel.
Several Hezbollah members were captured during last year's war. In addition to Kantar, the main Lebanese prisoners held in Israel are Nasim Nisr, a Lebanese-born Israeli captured for having contacts with Hezbollah, and Yehia Skaff, who was detained in 1978 while taking part in a Palestinian militant attack that killed 35 Israelis, are also held in Israel prisoner.