COLOGNE, Germany -- Two military planes carrying Arab prisoners and a kidnapped Israeli landed in Germany early today for the final stages of a German-brokered prisoner swap between Israel and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah.
The Israeli air force jet carrying 36 Arabs prisoners and a German air force plane carrying businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers taxied into the same hangar and parked side by side, according to Israeli security sources.
The jets touched down amid extremely tight security at Cologne's Wahn Airport.
Under the deal, expected to be completed later today, Israel is to release a total of 436 prisoners in exchange for Tannenbaum and the three soldiers whom Hezbollah confirmed today are dead.
"My name is Elhanan Tannenbaum and I am an Israeli citizen," he said at Beirut's airport as he walked to the plane. Asked about his treatment, he replied: "Very good. Thank you. I was treated very well by the Hezbollah."
Israel will free the 400 Palestinians into the West Bank and Gaza and release the 36 non-Palestinian prisoners, including two Lebanese guerrilla leaders, in Germany. Also, the Jewish state will turn over the remains of 59 Lebanese militants at the border with Lebanon. The deal boosts the Lebanese guerrilla group's standing in the region because of its success in freeing Palestinian prisoners, while Israel wins its first pledge of concrete information about an airman captured in 1986 in Lebanon.
The Hezbollah guerrilla group confirmed that the three Israeli soldiers were dead only hours before it delivered their remains to a German air force plane at Beirut airport. The group had long refused to divulge the fate of the soldiers whom it captured on the Israeli-Lebanese border in 2000.
An Israeli forensics team, including Israel's chief pathologist, medics, and rabbis, flew to Germany yesterday in preparation for the swap.
Positive identification of the bodies is to set off the rest of the swap.
Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they received information that the bodies of the soldiers had been preserved in formaldehyde, which could speed up the identification process. The forensics team also brought along dental records and other evidence.
Since Israel's founding in 1948, Israel has participated in several dozen prisoner exchanges with its Arab neighbors, many of them lopsided in the Arabs' favor. In 1985, Israel freed 1,150 Palestinians in exchange for three soldiers held in Lebanon. There is opposition to this deal among both Israelis and Palestinians.
Some Israelis complain the price is too high and hands Hezbollah a victory that could help it destabilize the area.
Many Palestinians, meanwhile, complained that no prominent uprising figures are included. Also, most of the 400 were scheduled to be released this year.
"The Palestinians had hoped that the deal would include prisoners with long sentences, that it would include the sick, or those with life sentences," said Fadwa Barghouthi, the wife of the most prominent Palestinian prisoner, Marwan Barghouthi, on trial for his alleged role in attacks that killed 26 Israelis. He is not included in the deal.
Israel scheduled a memorial service this evening for the three soldiers upon their return. President Moshe Katsav, joined by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and other senior officials, was to preside over the ceremony.
The soldiers -- Beni Avraham, Adi Avitan and Omar Souad -- were captured in October 2000 after a Hezbollah roadside bomb hit their jeep during a patrol along the Lebanese border.
After the swap is completed, the sides are to launch a second stage of negotiations. Israel is supposed to receive within three months concrete information about the fate of missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and captured alive. In exchange, Israel would release Samir Kantar, a Lebanese militant who has been in an Israeli prison since 1979 for killing three Israelis.