JERUSALEM, Oct 16 (Reuters) Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today played down prospects of a quick return of two captured soldiers after Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon handed over the remains of an Israeli civilian in a UN-brokered deal.
Israel received the body yesterday in exchange for a captive Hezbollah fighter and the bodies of two comrades. The enemies hinted the swap could bolster efforts to secure the release of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in July 2006.
The abductions triggered a 34-day war between Israel and the guerrilla group.
Olmert said the return of Israeli citizen Gabriel Dwat, an Ethiopian immigrant who drowned in January 2005 and whose body washed to the Lebanese coast, had been part of negotiations to return the captured soldiers, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.
''Last night we passed a certain stage in the process.
Unfortunately, the road (to their release) ... is still a long one,'' Olmert said in a speech in southern Israel.
A senior Israeli government official had described the exchange as a ''confidence-building process'' but noted Hezbollah had not told Israel anything about the status of the two soldiers.
Hezbollah said it had provided information in ''humanitarian cases'' and that it hoped the ''goodwill gestures'' would help the UN-appointed mediator to broker the wider prisoner exchange.
UN MEDIATOR Israeli security sources said Hezbollah had given Israel information about missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was captured when his plane went down over Lebanon in 1986 but who has not been heard from in years.
The pro-Hezbollah al-Akhbar daily reported the documents dated back to the early days of his capture.
Olmert accused groups that have abducted Israeli soldiers of offering an ''ugly, cynical trade'' by playing on the emotions of Israelis and making escalating demands in return for bits of information and bodies.
Several Israeli soldiers have been missing in Lebanon since a 1982 Israeli invasion and are presumed dead.
The UN-appointed mediator, believed to be a German intelligence officer, is working on a deal to get Goldwasser and Regev exchanged for Lebanese and other prisoners. There has been no word on whether they are alive and, if so, on their condition.
The swap also came four days after Germany said it would grant early release to an Iranian and a Lebanese who were given life prison sentences for the 1992 assassination of a group of dissident Kurdish leaders at a restaurant in Berlin.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Israel last exchanged prisoners in 2004, when Israel released more than 400 Lebanese and other Arab prisoners for an Israeli businessman and the remains of three soldiers.
REUTERS GL BD1650