Israel may exchange terrorist for soldier hostages

Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has concluded that Israel should exchange the perpetrator of a particularly serious terror attack for two Israeli soldiers held in Lebanon for the past two years, a senior government official confirmed today.

Samir Kantar is serving multiple life sentences for killing four Israelis in a 1979 attack on an apartment building in northern Israel.

Among the dead were a 28-year-old man and his four-year-old daughter, whose head Kantar repeatedly smashed against a rock before crushing her skull with a rifle butt.

Her mother, who was hiding in a crawl space, accidentally smothered her other daughter while trying to silence the two-year-old's cries.

Israel had hoped Kantar would be a bargaining chip to wrest information from Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas about the fate of a missing Israeli navigator captured in Lebanon in 1986.

However, Mr Olmert and other senior Israeli leaders have concluded Hezbollah has no new information about navigator Ron Arad, the government officials said.

He is now willing to swap Kantar for two Israeli soldiers Hezbollah seized in a July 2006 cross-border raid that sparked a month-long war with Israel, they added.

Soldiers Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev are believed to have been badly wounded during their capture, and Hezbollah has offered no proof they are alive.

Mr Olmert plans to meet with the Arad family on Tuesday to inform them about the impending deal, the officials said.

Mr Arad was forced to parachute out of his fighter jet on a mission over Lebanon in October 1986 after one of his aircraft's bombs apparently malfunctioned.

The jet's pilot was rescued by Israeli forces, but Mr Arad was captured by guerrillas from the Shiite Amal organisation.

There have been reports that Mr Arad later was transferred to Hezbollah and then to Iran, but no reliable evidence of his fate has ever surfaced.

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said last year that he believed Mr Arad was dead.

No timetable for a swap has been disclosed.

Because of the brutal nature of Kantar's attack and his lack of remorse, his release would be highly controversial in Israel.

In all, Israel is believed to be holding seven Lebanese prisoners, including Kantar. Four others would be swapped for the soldiers in addition to Kantar, the government officials said.

There have been recent signals from Hezbollah and Israel that a prisoner exchange could be in the works.

Nasrallah predicted last month that Israel would soon release prisoners it is holding, and two weeks ago, his Islamic group unexpectedly turned over body parts of Israeli soldiers killed in the 2006 war.

A senior Israeli military official confirmed at the time that a deal was in the making.

Even if the deal does goes through, it is unlikely to ease the animosity between Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which remains committed to the destruction of the Jewish state.

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