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The Lebanese government said on Tuesday a prisoner swap deal reached between Israel and Hezbollah marked a "big failure" for Israel, which had earlier refused to agree to such a plan.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert secured cabinet approval on Sunday for a prisoner swap with Hezbollah under which two soldiers held by the guerrilla group, believed to be dead, would be recovered.

The capture of army reservists Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in a cross border raid in July 2006 triggered a 34-day war in Lebanon, with Olmert ruling out talks on their return. He later relented, negotiating through a UN-appointed mediator.

"The release of the prisoners through a German mediator, after this long time and according to the conditions published in the media, marks a big failure, and a very big failure of Israel's policy which refused, before the July 2006 war, to seal a complete exchange deal," a Lebanese government statement said.

"Then it returned and launched a war against Lebanon and its people with the excuse of demanding the prisoners, and then it returned and submitted in the end to the logic of negotiating through mediators, in order for the deal to succeed.

"This deal ... is a new and clear condemnation for Israel, its tactics and its policies."

In exchange for the soldiers, Israel would release five Lebanese gunmen and at a later stage an undisclosed number of Palestinian prisoners. Dozens of bodies of slain infiltrators and the remains of eight Hezbollah men killed in the 2006 war would also be handed over.

The deal is expected to take place within a few days.

In parallel to the Hezbollah deal, Israel has said it is interested in opening peace talks with Lebanon, a move the Lebanese government has rebuffed.

Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora has often said Lebanon would be the last Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.

Lebanon sources: Swap to take two phases

The pending prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hezbollah is to be carried out in two phases, the Kuwaiti news agency has quoted Lebanese officials as saying.

In the first phase, Hezbollah is to transfer to Israel remains of Israeli soldiers killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, and Israel will transfer the bodies of Hezbollah and Palestinian operatives.

The next day, Hezbollah will hand over captive soldiers Goldeasser and Regev, and, in return, will receive jailed terrorist Samir Kuntar and four Hezbollah activists.

The second phase is to be carried out a month later, with Israel releasing a number of Palestinian prisoners, who are likely to be women and minors.

Israeli news reports have indicated that the first phase could begin this coming week.

Information on Ron Arad

The Kuwaiti account differs from Israel's reckoning of the stages of the deal, as approved in a cabinet session on Sunday. In Israel's view, the signing of the deal, expected within days, will the first of four stages of the swap.

As part of the second stage of the prisoner swap agreement approved by the cabinet, Hezbollah will hand over a report said to detail the organization's efforts to obtain information on missing Israeli airman Ron Arad.

In exchange, Israel will give Hezbollah a report on the fate of four Iranian diplomats kidnapped and murdered during the Lebanon war in the 1980s. Israel has previously said it does not know what happened to the diplomats, who were arrested at a Christian Falange roadblock in 1982 and are believed to have been subsequently executed and buried at a site where construction later obliterated their graves.

If the reports are accepted as meeting the terms of the deal, the third stage is then to ensue: Hezbollah will return Goldwasser and Regev or their remains if they are no longer alive, as well as the last of the remains of Israeli soldiers in Lebanon.

In exchange, Israel will deliver Kuntar to Hezbollah, along with four Hezbollah militants who were captured in the Second Lebanon War and the remains of a few dozen bodies, including those of eight Hezbollah militants. This phase will take place at Rosh Hanikra under Red Cross auspices.

Sources in Israel said the swap would probably take place by July 12, when Hezbollah is planning a victory ceremony to mark the second anniversary of the Second Lebanon War.