JERUSALEM – Israel handed over a convicted Hezbollah spy to Lebanon on Sunday, and in a surprise move the Islamic guerrilla group turned over what it said were the body parts of Israeli soldiers killed in a 2006 war.
The Hezbollah gesture, along with recent comments by its leader, signaled that a larger prisoner exchange could be in the works. Israel said Sunday’s exchanges were unrelated to a deal that would include Israel releasing the longest-serving Lebanese prisoner and Hezbollah setting free two soldiers captured in a 2006 cross-border raid that sparked a monthlong war.
But a senior Israeli military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said a deal was in the making, though there was no timetable for completing it.
Israeli authorities released Nasim Nisr, an Israeli of Lebanese descent after he completed a six-year sentence for espionage and drove him from a prison in central Israel to the northern Rosh Hanikra crossing.
Hezbollah official Wafik Safa told the group’s al-Manar TV station that it handed over a brown box containing what it said were the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in the war.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has boasted that he holds the arms and legs of Israeli soldiers.
The Israeli army said the remains would undergo forensic examination.
Helge Kvam, a Red Cross spokesman in Jerusalem, called Hezbollah’s move a “complete surprise,” and the Israeli military said the move was not coordinated.
Nasrallah predicted last month that Israel would soon release prisoners, and German mediators have been trying to work out a swap for months.
Israel is believed to be holding seven Lebanese prisoners, including Samir Kantar, who has been in prison since he was convicted of killing an Israeli family in 1979.
Hezbollah has been holding soldiers Udi Goldwasser and Eldad Regev since July 2006. They are believed to have been seriously wounded during their abduction, and Hezbollah has offered no proof they are alive.
A larger prisoner swap would end a difficult chapter for Israel. The two captive soldiers have become symbols of what is widely seen as a failed war, and their families have traveled the world pushing for the return of their loved ones.
In Beirut, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Sunday’s exchanges were preliminary steps that “created a positive dynamism” in the secret talks between the sides.
Nisr was convicted in 2002 of espionage. He admitted in a plea bargain to passing information to a senior Hezbollah officer.
Hezbollah released dozens of white pigeons and yellow balloons Sunday to mark his return and was quick to tout it as another victory.
Arriving in the southern coastal town of Naqoura, Nisr grinned and flashed the victory sign as he was showered with rice and rose petals by throngs of cheering supporters.