Lebanon celebrates release of five prisoners

Published July 16th, 2008 - 11:00 GMT

Top Lebanese leaders on Wednesday welcomed five prisoners released from Israeli jails in line with a swap between Hizbullah and the Jewish state. President Michel Suleiman, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Premier Fouad Saniora led cabinet ministers, MPs and religious leaders in greeting the five who arrived aboard two helicopters from the southern border village of Naqoura, hours after they were freed by Israel.


Suleiman delivered his speech as the five, four Hizbullah fighters and Palestine Liberation Front operative Samir Qantar, stood on a platform wearing military fatigues. They later shook hands with politicians lined up to greet them. Well-wishers included Hizbullah's deputy chief Sheikh Naim Qassem and Iran's Ambassador to Lebanon Mohamad Riza Shibani.


"Your return is a new victory and the future in your presence will be a path during which we will achieve sovereignty on our land and freedom for our people," the Lebanese president said. The five, Suleiman said, have "the right to be proud of their country, their army and their resistance."


After the ceremony, the five were driven through crowds to a Hizbullah-sponsored rally at south Beirut's Rayeh stadium. Thousands of Hizbullah partisans and followers of the Hizbullah-led parliamentary minority waved the flag's yellow banner and chanted slogans in support of Hassan Nasrallah, the party leader.


The swap got underway hours after Hizbullah handed over to the Jewish state the bodies of two soldiers it seized in a cross-border raid two years ago.


The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) handled logistics of the swap deal between Hizbullah and Israel, which was worked out by a U.N. mediator. Four ICRC vehicles drove the five released Lebanese prisoners across the border to the southern coastal town of Naqoura, to be greeted by Hizbullah's security chief Wafiq Safa.

The five 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," Safa said at the Naqoura border crossing between Lebanon and Israel as men placed two black coffins on the ground.


The mood in Israel had been somber as it waited to learn the fate of Goldwasser and Regev. "Both soldiers have been identified," an army spokeswoman told Israeli Radio after forensic tests on the remains.


As part of the deal, Israel also turned over the bodies of eight Hizbullah fighters killed in the 2006 summer war in return for remains of Israeli soldiers killed in the 34-day confrontation. The eight are part of 199 Palestinian Lebanese fighters whose bodies are to be returned to Lebanon in line with the swap deal.


Among the first bodies handed over was that of Dalal al-Moghrabi, who led a commando attack in 1978. 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.


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