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Lebanon welcomes 'heroes' after Israel swap

Militant convicted of grisly murders is among those freed

updated 5:31 p.m. ET July 16, 2008

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Five Lebanese militants freed from prisons in Israel in exchange for the bodies of two captured Israeli soldiers strode down a red carpet behind a Hezbollah honor guard Wednesday to a boisterous welcome from hundreds of cheering spectators.

Israel released Samir Kantar and four others after Hezbollah handed over two black coffins with the bodies of the Israeli soldiers, closing a painful chapter from the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Kantar, who had been serving multiple life terms in Israel for a grisly 1979 attack, wiped away tears as he stood before hundreds in the coastal border town of Naqoura in southern Lebanon. An honor guard escorted the men to a stage as a brass band played martial music and rows of uniformed fighters saluted.

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

The five later flew to Beirut, where they received an official welcome from the president and were congratulated by Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, who was last seen in public in January.

"Your return is a new victory and the future with you will only be a shinning march in which we achieve the sovereignty of our land and the freedom of people," President Michel Suleiman said in his address. "I congratulate the resistance (Hezbollah) for this new achievement."

The black-turbaned Nasrallah walked on stage surrounded by bodyguards and shook hands, hugged and kissed each of the five men, who were freed as part of a prisoner exchange. Nasrallah told tens of thousands of people at Wednesday's rally that the age of defeats is gone and now it is the age of victories.

IMAGE: FREED LEBANESE AT AIRPORT
HASSAN IBRAHIM / AFP/Getty Images
The freed Lebanese prisoners pose at Beirut's airport on Wednesday wearing Hezbollah fatigues. Samir Kantar is at far right.

Winning freedom for Kantar was one of the reasons Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah cited at the time for going to war with Israel in 2006.

Kantar was convicted in a nighttime attack that killed a 4-year-old girl, her father and a policeman. Although polls showed Israelis solidly endorsed the exchange, many see Kantar as the embodiment of evil.

"Samir Kantar is a brutal murderer of children and anybody celebrating him as a hero is trampling on basic human decency," said Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli prime minister.

Soldiers' capture led to war
Wednesday's exchange was also a wrenching end to the war for Israel. The soldiers' capture by Hezbollah fighters in a cross-border raid in 2006 triggered the 34-day war. The campaign to bring Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev home had become a national crusade.

The soldiers' Hezbollah captors had withheld any information about them since they were taken, refusing to release pictures or allow the Red Cross to see them. It was not clear if Regev and Goldwasser were killed in the original raid or if they died in captivity. Evidence at the scene indicated both were seriously wounded.

Though officials had suspected they were dead, the sight of the coffins was the first confirmation of their fate.

Image: Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser
- / AFP - Getty Images
Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev, left, and Ehud Goldwasser were abducted in Lebanon in 2006.

Regev's father, Zvi, said he fell apart the moment he saw Hezbollah take the coffins out of a van and place them on the ground.

"It was horrible to see it. I didn't want to, I asked them to turn off the TV," he said, choking back tears.

"We were always hoping that Udi and Eldad were alive and that they would come home and we would hug them," he added, using Ehud Goldwasser's nickname. "We had this hope all the time."

An aunt of Regev's sank to the ground when she saw the coffins appear on a small TV hooked up outside the soldier's father's house. Some 50 friends, neighbors and family who had gathered there sobbed, rocked back and forth in prayer, lit candles or tugged at their hair. "Nasrallah, you will pay," several of the mourners vowed.

Other people in the crowd criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, saying the soldiers died for nothing.

German mediator
The swap was mediated by a U.N.-appointed German official who shuttled between the sides for 18 months.

On Wednesday, Israeli forensic experts examined the remains for several hours, checking dental records among other things, before confirming the soldiers' identities. Israeli generals then went to the families' homes to deliver the news.

After the confirmation, Israel released Kantar and the four other Lebanese prisoners to Hezbollah.


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