German FM: Transfer of bodies by Hezbollah is bid to advance swap talks
Israel: Transfer is 'unilateral' move, unconnected to release of Hezbollah spy Nissim Nasser on Sunday.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Sunday's return to Israel of what Hezbollah maintained were remains of fallen IDF soldiers was a preliminary step that aimed to create a positive dynamism in the secret talks between the Lebanon-based guerilla group and Israel.
Prisoner exchange talks, under German mediation, have been reported to have taken a recent leap toward the return of the captive Israeli soldiers to Israel in return for Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar and several other Lebanese militants held in Israel.
Kuntar has been jailed in Israel since he was convicted of killing four Israelis in a terror attack in 1979. Hezbollah has been holding Israel Defense Forces soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev since July 2006.
Earlier Sunday, the Israel Defense Forces confirmed they had received a container from Hezbollah, which they claimed holds the remains of Israeli soldiers killed during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
The remains were taken to the National Institute of Forensic Medicine in Abu Kabir in efforts to verify their identity.
The International Committee of the Red Cross transferred the container from Hezbollah to Israel where the remains underwent evaluation. According to the IDF Spokesperson's Office, the container was given a preliminary check by the army and police before being transferred to Abu Kabir.
Hezbollah security official Wafik Safa announced the release of the soldiers' remains at Naqoura upon the arrival of Nissim Nasser, a Lebanese man released from jail by Israel on Sunday morning.
"We today are handing over some of the remains of a number of Israeli soldiers who were killed in the July war and who the Israeli army left in Lebanon," Safa said. The container was placed in an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) vehicle.
The Red Cross confirmed that its representatives had received a container holding the remains of IDF soldiers. Helge Kvam, a Red Cross spokesman in Jerusalem, called Hezbollah's move a complete surprise.
The container was transferred to IDF forces at the Rosh Hanikra crossing and taken to the Abu Kabir Institute for forensic evaluation. Israeli sappers were investigating the contents of the container before sending it off for forensic evaluation.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office called the transfer a unilateral move on the part of Hezbollah, claiming it was not connected to Nasser's release from detention or to any other kind of deal with the militant organization.
In Lebanon, TV stations carried a live broadcast of Nasser's arrival. Wearing a white shirt with blue and green strips, he hugged weeping relatives, including his mother. In brief remarks, he thanked Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and expressed his wish to see other Lebanese prisoners released.
An Israeli security official said Hezbollah had agreed to turn over the remains as a gesture and the move was not coordinated with Israel. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding the ongoing negotiations.
Israel suspects that Hezbollah's goal in handing over the remains was to advance negotiations on a prisoner swap.
Nasrallah said in a Jan. 19 speech his group had the heads, hands and legs of soldiers left in the battlefields of the 34-day war.
Hezbollah spy Nasser was released after six years in Israeli detention. He was handed over by Israeli authorities to representatives from the Red Cross and UNIFIL at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing, and was to be returned to Lebanon later in the day.
Hezbollah spy says acted because he's a 'Lebanese patriot and Muslim'
Nasser has said that he decided to spy for Hezbollah because he saw himself as a "Lebanese patriot and a Muslim."
He was convicted of spying on Israel for Hezbollah, and his release is part of efforts to advance a prisoner exchange with the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group.
Nassar, 41, was born to Valentina Nasser, a Jewish woman who converted to Islam. In 1991, he immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return, reportedly as a means of improving his quality of life and not out of any sort of Zionist sentiment.
Nasser's release, announced by Israeli authorities, has raised speculation that it is linked to German mediation efforts to secure a prisoner swap between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group.
Security authorities and the Prime Minister's office have said the handover is not connected to any future prisoner exchange, rather, was approved after it became evident that the decision to continue to hold Nasser indefinitely as a bargaining chip would not stand up to Supreme Court scrutiny.
Nasser signed a plea bargain and was sentenced in 2002 to six years in prison for spying for Hezbollah. He finished serving his sentence early this year, but he was subsequently held in administrative detention, apparently so that he could be used as a bargaining chip in a deal for the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.
As part of his plea bargain in 2002, Nasser admitted to passing information to a senior Hezbollah officer, as well as photos of one of his relatives who was a high-ranking Israeli security official.
Nasser was also found to have taken photos and gathered intelligence on potential gas and electrical facilities to be used as targets for Hezbollah, reportedly under his own initiative without being asking to do so.
The group did however, tell Nasser to try to establish contact with a high-ranking IDF officer in order to solicit intelligence on IDF operations. He was also asked to try and gauge public sentiment in Israel after attacks by the militant group.