(AFP) – Jul 16, 2008
BEIRUT (AFP) — Five Lebanese prisoners freed by Israel arrived to a hero's welcome in Lebanon Wednesday, hours after Hezbollah handed over the bodies of two Israeli soldiers seized by its guerrillas two years ago.
Among those freed in a prisoner swap greeted with triumph in Lebanon but anguish in Israel was Samir Kantar , who was sentenced to five life terms for a 1979 triple murder, including of a child.
The prisoners were transported to Lebanon late afternoon in a convoy of four International Committee of the Red Cross vehicles via the Naqura border crossing, where they were cheered and applauded by crowds of Hezbollah supporters who had been waiting all day for their arrival.
They were then flown by helicopters to Beirut, where they were accorded a red carpet welcome by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, the entire cabinet and a host of lawmakers and religious leaders.
The five -- Kantar and Hezbollah fighters Khaled Zidan, Maher Kurani, Mohammed Sarur and Hussein Suleiman -- stood on a platform as Sleiman spoke and then shook hands with the politicians lined up to greet them.
"Your return is a new victory and the future in your presence will be a path in which we will realise the sovereignty of our territory and the liberty of our people," Sleiman said.
"I tell Samir and his companions that they have a right to be proud of their country, their army and their resistance."
Kantar kissed his mother, Siham Kantar, 71, after the meet and greet with the politicians as crowds and the media swarmed around him.
His mother had burst into tears while waiting earlier at the airport when she was told that her son had arrived in Naqura and was indeed free after more than 28 years in jail.
"I never gave up hope for a day," she said, choked by emotion.
"This moment makes up for 30 years of waiting. I want to hug and kiss him. My only wish is to see him."
The four freed Hezbollah fighters were captured in the July-August 2006 war which killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon and 160 in Israel were also freed. They and Kantar were the last remaining Lebanese prisoners in Israeli jails.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah made a rare public appearance at celebrations attended by tens of thousands of people in the southern suburbs of Beirut Wednesday night.
"The period of defeat is over and the time of victory has arrived," Nasrallah said at the celebrations marking the success of emptying Israeli jails of Lebanese prisoners.
"This people and this nation and this country that gave a clear picture to the world... cannot be defeated," he added.
Kantar told the cheering crowds he thanked God for giving him the strength to endure his almost three-decade imprisonment, which made him the longest-serving Arab prisoner in Israel.
The five prisoners were released in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev , captured on July 12, 2006.
The fate of the two soldiers was not known until their bodies were returned to Israel Wednesday morning.
"Today we hand over Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev," Hezbollah official Wafiq Safa said at Naqura, as men placed two black coffins on the ground amid a crowd of onlookers.
The mood in Israel had been sombre as it waited to learn the fate of Goldwasser and Regev, whose capture in a deadly cross-border raid in July 2006 triggered a devastating 34-day war in Lebanon.
"Both soldiers have been identified," an army spokeswoman told AFP after forensic tests on the remains.
Goldwasser's family broke down in cries of despair when they saw the footage of Hezbollah handing over the caskets, while neighbours gathered around the Regev home, lighting candles and quietly shedding tears.
"Eldad! Eldad! What have they done to you?" wailed Regev's aunt Hana.
Many in Israel question whether the nation is paying too high a price for the return of the soldiers who are to be buried on Thursday, saying the swap risks bolstering its arch foes in the region.
Israel also was to transfer to Lebanon the remains of 199 Palestinian and Hezbollah fighters exhumed over the past week.
Among the first bodies handed over was that of Dalal al-Moghrabi , who led a bloody commando attack in 1978 that Israelis describe as the "Coastal Road Massacre."
She was killed in a battle with Israeli forces after her group blew up a bus they had hijacked on the road between Tel Aviv and Haifa, killing 36 people.
Lebanese television showed footage of a convoy of trucks crossing into Lebanon Wednesday evening carrying the bodies of the remaining fighters.
They were due to be transported to Beirut Thursday morning, Hezbollah said in a statement.
Israel's Jerusalem Post newspaper has billed the festivities in Lebanon as "a celebration of evil."
Israeli commentators warned the swap had given a propaganda victory to Hezbollah, setting a dangerous precedent for any future exchanges and possibly encouraging new attempts by militant groups to seize Israeli soldiers.
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