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Celebrations in Lebanon after prisoner exchange

AABEY, July 17 – Hundreds of people in this Druze village eagerly awaited the return on Thursday of Samir Kantar, Lebanon’s longest serving prisoner who was released by Israel a day earlier as part of a swap deal.

"We are very happy on this beautiful day, this is a victory for Lebanon and the national resistance," said Yusra Khaddaj, 39, as she stood with her three young daughters on the road leading to Aabey, Kantar’s home town located some 30 kilometres (18 miles) southeast of Beirut.

"Samir Kantar is the son of all the Lebanese," added Khaddaj, holding a bowl of rice and flower petals she planned to throw on his convoy.

A folklore band was also on hand to take part in the celebrations.

One banner along the road leading to Aabey read: "From Palestine, to Iraq to Lebanon, the resistance is victorious."

Another said "Our prisoners are our promise," in reference to Hezbollah’s vow to free Kantar and other prisoners held in Israel.

Meanwhile trucks bedecked with flowers transported the remains of 199 Arab fighters from the border town of Naqura to the Lebanese capital where a ceremony was to be held in their honour before they would be handed over to their families.

Supporters threw rose petals and rice and some cheered as the makeshift hearses carrying the bodies of the Lebanese and Palestinian fighters passed on its journey to Beirut.

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The mothers of some of the Palestinian fighters killed in battles with Israeli troops during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war wept as they accompanied the cortege and sought to touch the coffins draped in Lebanese or Palestinian flags.

The remains were handed over by Israel on Wednesday along with Kantar and four Hezbollah fighters in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured by the Shiite guerrilla group two years ago.

Funerals were held for the two soldiers in Israel on Thursday.

Their capture sparked a devastating 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in which over 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and over 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed.

Hezbollah has dubbed the swap "the Radwan operation" after the alias used by notorious Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughnieh, who was killed in a bombing in Syria in February for which Hezbollah has blamed Israel.

Kantar, who turns 46 on July 22, visited Mughnieh’s tomb in Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Thursday before heading to his village in a triumphal cavalcade.

He was just 17 when sentenced to five life terms for a 1979 triple murder, including of a four-year-old child.

His release and return to Lebanon to a jubilant hero’s welcome drew condemnation in Israel and other circles.

Iran meanwhile said the prisoner swap between Israel and Hezbollah was an achievement both for the guerrilla movement and the Lebanese people, the state news agency IRNA reported.

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"The glad news of the release of Lebanese prisoners by the Zionist regime is part of the achievement by the Islamic Hezbollah and the dear Lebanese people’s resistance. We congratulate them for this great victory," Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was quoted as saying.

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