Israel and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah have reached a deal brokered by Germany for a prisoner exchange to take place within two or three weeks, Egyptian state-owned daily al-Ahram reported yesterday.
"The prisoner swap between Hezbollah and Israel is to take place within two or three weeks maximum, thanks to a German mediation which is currently arranging the details of the exchange," the paper said, citing high-ranking officials.
According to the newspaper, the swap could take place simultaneously or in two stages.
In the second scenario, the Shiite militant group would hand over the two Israeli soldiers captured on July 12 after "receiving strong guarantees from the German mediator that Lebanese prisoners would be released the next day or the day after," the newspaper said.
The cross-border raid in which Hezbollah seized the two soldiers triggered a massive Israeli offensive against Lebanon, to which Hezbollah responded by firing rockets at northern Israel.
At least 1,200 Lebanese, most of them civilians, and 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers, were killed in the month-long conflict.
Germany brokered a deal in January 2004 that saw Israel exchange 429 Arab prisoners for the release of an Israeli businessman captured by Hezbollah and the remains of three soldiers.
When he announced the capture of the two soldiers, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said he was ready to exchange them for Arabs held in Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has said her government is ready to negotiate for a release of the two soldiers.
Al-Ahram said an exchange between Israel and Hezbollah would help efforts to secure the release of a third Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, who was captured on June 25 by Gaza-based militants.
"Once a Hezbollah-Israel deal is reached, the Shalit problem could be solved" even before the other two soldiers are freed, the newspaper said.
Meanwhile, a key US legislator said in Israel yesterday that he would block aid President George W. Bush has promised Lebanon and free the funds only when Beirut agreed to the deployment of international troops on its border with Syria.
"The international community must use all our available means to stiffen Lebanon's spine and to convince the government of Lebanon to have the new UNIFIL troops on the Syrian border in adequate numbers," said Representative Tom Lantos, the ranking Democrat on the US House of Representatives' International Relations Committee.