Heroes' welcome for freed Lebanese prisoners
Jihad Siqlawi, AFP Published: Wednesday, July 16, 2008AQURA, Lebanon - Five Lebanese prisoners arrived to a triumphant red carpet welcome in Lebanon on Wednesday after being freed by Israel in a prisoner swap after years behind bars.
The five - convicted murderer Samir Kantar and Hezbollah fighters Khaled Zidan, Maher Kurani, Mohammed Sarur and Hussein Suleiman - were given a heroes’ welcome when set foot on Lebanese soil late afternoon at the Naqura border crossing between Lebanon and Israel.
Freed Lebanese prisoner Samir Kantar waves as he arrives in southern Lebanon Wednesday.Photograph by : Ramzi Haidar/AFP/Getty Images
Kantar, who was serving five life sentences, waved at applauding crowds as he and his comrades walked toward the stage under a shower of confetti.
One of those attending the ceremony, Nohad Haidar, 47, was dressed in a black chador with a yellow Hezbollah flag wrapped around her head and carrying a bag of white flowers to throw on the freed prisoners.
"We came to celebrate today with Hezbollah, which has allowed us to lift our heads with pride. I came to this celebration of heroes," she said.
Patriotic songs and excerpts of speeches by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah bellowed during the day from loudspeakers as members of the Shiite movement clad in military garb lined the main road leading to the Naqura border crossing waiting for the arrival of the prisoners.
"Lebanon is shedding tears of joy," said one banner, while another, alongside it near the border, read: "Israel is shedding tears of pain."
Along the Mediterranean coast off Naqura, about 50 fishing boats gathered, festooned with yellow Hezbollah flags and red and green Lebanese flags.
Two hundred Hezbollah volunteers and supporters, dressed in black and wearing yellow caps reading "Divine Victory", kept control of proceedings at Naqura and ushered the crowds.
Lebanon’s cabinet declared Wednesday a public holiday for the exchange, in which Hezbollah turned over the remains of Israeli soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev in return for the five men and remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters.
The two soldiers were captured in a July 12, 2006 cross-border raid that sparked a devastating 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel. More than 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and over 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, died in the war.
The liberated prisoners were late Wednesday to be flown by Lebanese army helicopter to Beirut where they would be greeted by President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and parliament speaker Nabih Berri.
Families of the prisoners waiting at the airport cheered and applauded at the news that the men had arrived on Lebanese soil.
Kantar’s mother was shown on television embracing the freed man’s brother and crying tears of joy as she awaited him.
"I never gave up hope for a day," she said, choking back tears.
"This moment makes up for 30 years of waiting. I want to hug and kiss him. My only wish is to see him." Kantar was sentenced to five life terms for a 1979 triple murder, including a child, that shocked Israel to the core.
Hezbollah is planning a large celebration in its stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Nasrallah was to deliver a speech late Wednesday.
The bodies of 199 Palestinian and Lebanese fighters, some of them members of Hezbollah, will be taken to Beirut in a convoy on Thursday where some will be buried in the Martyrs Cemetery.
Most Lebanese papers saw the exchange as a force of unity for the country, especially as it coincides with the first meeting of the newly formed Lebanese cabinet.
"The government and the return of the prisoners unite Lebanon today," wrote the pro-government An-Nahar newspapers.