Hezbollah, Israel Swap Dead Soldiers

LEBANON / ISRAEL BORDER -- Israel handed over five Lebanese prisoners to Hezbollah via the Red Cross on Wednesday after the Shiite guerrilla group returned the bodies of two Israeli soldiers seized in a crossborder raid in 2006.

Among the freed captives was Samir Qantar, Israel's longest-serving Lebanese prisoner. Wearing jeans and a grey sweater, he was mobbed by reporters and well-wishers on arrival.

After changing into military fatigues, the five men received a heroes' welcome in the border village of Naqoura, appearing on a red carpet flanked by a Hezbollah guard of honor and senior officials.

"This is a moment of divine victory," said Sayyed Ibrahim Amin al-Sayyed, a senior Hezbollah leader told the cheering crowd.

A grim mood prevailed in Israel, where the prisoner swap was widely seen as a painful necessity two years after the capture of the two Israeli army reservists sparked a 34-day war in which about 1,200 people in Lebanon and 159 Israelis were killed.

Israel retrieved the corpses of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev only after agreeing to release Qantar, who had been serving a life term for the deaths of four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father, in a 1979 Palestinian guerrilla raid on an Israeli town.

"Woe betide the people who celebrate the release of a beastly man who bludgeoned the skull of a four-year-old toddler," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in a statement before a private meeting with the families of the two soldiers.

Many thousands of flag-waving Hezbollah supporters gathered in Beirut ahead of a rally to celebrate the release of Qantar and of four Hezbollah fighters captured in the 2006 conflict.

They were to be flown to the Lebanese capital to be greeted at the airport by President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in a show of unity in Lebanon, which declared a public holiday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross drove the five men to a UN peacekeepers' base at Naqoura after Hezbollah handed over black coffins containing the Israeli soldiers.

The Israeli army said forensic teams had identified the bodies as those of its missing men. Hezbollah had never disclosed whether they were alive or dead, but Israeli officials had said they were badly wounded at the time of their capture.

The release of the Lebanese prisoners, said by Hezbollah to be the last held in Israel, closes a file that has motivated repeated attempts by Shiite guerrillas over the past quarter of a century to capture Israelis to use as bargaining counters.

Under the deal arranged by a UN-appointed German mediator, Israel also returned the bodies of eight Hezbollah fighters slain in the 2006 war and those of four Palestinians, including Dalal Mughrabi, a woman guerrilla who led a 1978 raid on Israel.

The four were among nearly 200 Arabs killed trying to attack Israel whose bodies will be sent to Lebanon. Hezbollah handed back the remains of other Israeli soldiers killed in the south.

Israel will also free scores of Palestinian prisoners at a later date as a gesture to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.