Thousands cheer five released Lebanese militants

Thursday, July 17, 2008

BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Five Lebanese militants got a hero's welcome from tens of thousands of cheering Hezbollah supporters and kisses from the U.S.-backed prime minister Wednesday after being set free by Israel in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

The lopsided exchange was hailed as a triumph by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who declared that the "age of victories has come," and solidified the Iran-backed militant group's rising political power in Lebanon and the wider Arab world.

For Israel the swap closed a painful chapter of its 2006 war in Lebanon, but it prompted critics to question whether trading prisoners for bodies would encourage future kidnappings by militant groups.

Nasrallah told the crowd in Beirut that the prisoner exchange demonstrated Hezbollah's power over Israel.

"The age of defeats is gone, and the age of victories has come. This people, this nation gave a great and clear image today to its friends and enemies that it cannot be defeated," he said.

Before being whisked away by bodyguards from only his third time in public since the 2006 war, Nasrallah kissed and hugged each of the five freed men.

One of the former prisoners, Samir Kantar, vowed to continue fighting Israel.

"I promise my people and dear ones in Palestine that I and my dear comrades in the valiant Islamic resistance are returning," he told the roaring crowd.

An Israeli court convicted Kantar for a 1979 attack that left four Israelis dead, including a father and his 4-year-old daughter.

The court found that Kantar shot Danny Haran in front of his child, then smashed her head with his rifle butt.

Kantar, who was a 16-year-old fighter for a Palestinian group at the time, denies killing the child, saying she died in a crossfire. He has never expressed remorse for the incident.

Haran's wife, Smadar, who had fled into a crawl space in the family apartment with her 2-year-old daughter, accidentally smothered the child with her hand while trying to stifle her cries.

The welcoming rally in Hezbollah's stronghold of south Beirut drew many of Lebanon's political leaders, including some from rival parties whose supporters fought pitched street battles with Hezbollah militants in May.

"Your return is a new victory," President Michel Suleiman told the freed men as he stood in combat fatigues supplied by Hezbollah in what was meant to display its unending fight against Israel. Suleiman, who was supported by all factions for election to his post, congratulated Hezbollah "for this new achievement."

Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, a leader of pro-American factions that had to accept Hezbollah and its allies in a new unity government after the street fighting, did not attend the rally. But he was seen kissing the five freed men in greeting at Beirut airport.

The tears of anguish in Israel were a somber contrast to the joyous festivities in Lebanon.

Relatives prepared to bury soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, whose abduction by Hezbollah fighters in a July 12, 2006, cross-border raid led to a 34-day war with Israel. The war killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and about 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert comforted Goldwasser's widow, Karnit, when the coffins arrived at the Shraga army base in northern Israel. Officials had suspected the men were dead, but didn't know for sure until the bodies were delivered to the southern border town of Naqoura.

It was not clear if Regev and Goldwasser were killed in the Hezbollah raid or if they died in captivity. Evidence at the scene indicated both men had suffered serious wounds, but Hezbollah refused to release any information about them.

In addition to the five militants let out of Israeli cells, Israel also is returning the remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters.

Among the first bodies returned Wednesday was that of Dalal Mughrabi, who was shot in 1978 while participating in a militant attack that killed 36 Israelis.

Her mother, Amina, told a Lebanese television station that she was glad to finally get the remains. "I want to touch her with my hand. I want to feel her," the woman said.

The exchange was mediated over the past 18 months by a U.N.-appointed German official and began in the morning with the return of the two soldiers in simple black coffins.

By late afternoon, the five Lebanese were accompanied to the border by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In the Gaza Strip, which has been controlled by the anti-Israel group Hamas for a year, people handed out sweets ahead of Kantar's release. Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called the militant an "Arab nationalist hero."

After crossing the border, the five men put on Hezbollah uniforms and reviewed an honor guard as they walked down a red carpet to the tunes of a brass band playing martial music.

"We knew that you were waiting for the resistance and it reached you. You came back free and heroes," Ibrahim Amin al-Sayed, head of Hezbollah's political bureau, told them before they boarded helicopters for Beirut.

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