Kuntar receives a hero's welcome

Prisoners greeted by Saniora, Suleiman; Nasrallah: "Age of defeats gone, now it is the age of victories."

Nabil Kaouk 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Nabil Kaouk 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Five Lebanese prisoners freed by Israel in exchange for the two slain IDF reservists received an official welcome at the Beirut airport on Wednesday by President Michel Suleiman and his government. Suleiman, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and members of major political factions - including Hizbullah's rivals - led a long line of politicians, as well as Muslim and Christian clerics, in greeting them on the airport's tarmac in a show of unity and opposition to Israel. The five were flown by two army helicopters from the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura, where they were cheered by hundreds of spectators and received a red-carpet welcome and a Hizbullah honor guard. At the airport, the five stood in battle fatigues on a stand as the president addressed them as "the freed heroes." "Your return is a new victory, and the future with you will only be a shining march in which we achieve the sovereignty of our land and the freedom of people," Suleiman said in his address. "I congratulate the resistance [Hizbullah] for this new achievement." The five, including Samir Kuntar - Israel's longest-held Lebanese prisoner - then shook hands with and kissed the dignitaries on their second stop before a massive Hizbullah welcome rally in south Beirut. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah appeared at the rally and congratulated the freed prisoners. 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 the rally that the age of defeats was gone and that now it was the age of victories. Since the 2006 war between his group and Israel, Nasrallah has rarely appeared in public. The last time he was seen in public was in January. Nasrallah said he would address the crowd later from a secret location through a video link. Earlier Wednesday, after being driven across the border by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the men changed into camouflage uniforms. An honor guard carrying Lebanese, Hizbullah and Palestinian flags escorted the men to the stage as a brass band played martial music and rows of uniformed fighters saluted in Naqoura. In his first comments after his release, Kuntar told Hizbullah's Al-Manar TV, "I salute today those who sacrificed in order to achieve this new victory." Kuntar greeted Nasrallah and Hizbullah operatives "who raised our heads high up." In 1979, Kuntar and three other gunmen made their way in a rubber dinghy from Lebanon to Nahariya, five miles south of the Lebanese border. There, in a hail of gunfire and exploding grenades, they killed a policeman who stumbled upon them, then burst into the apartment of Danny Haran, herding him and his four-year-old daughter out of the house at gunpoint to the beach below, where they were killed. "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 Hizbullah's political bureau, on Wednesday.