Huffpost Politics

Freed Lebanese Militants Vow To Continue Fighting Israel

Posted: Updated:
Print

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Five militants freed in a prisoner swap with Israel prayed and laid wreaths at the grave of a slain Hezbollah commander Thursday, vowing to fight Israel as supporters showered them with rice.

At the same time, eight tractor-trailers loaded with coffins carrying the remains of 199 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters returned by Israel in the swap made their way from south Lebanon to the capital Beirut. Villagers showered rice and rose petals on the coffins wrapped in Lebanese and Hezbollah flags and covered with flowers. A banner on one of the red and yellow trucks read, "The Martyrs of Victory."

The vehicles were stopped often along the route by throngs of supporters, some of them women relatives in black headscarves and clothing who held up pictures of those killed in fighting with Israel over the past three decades.

In Beirut, the five freed prisoners dressed in military fatigues walked a red carpet laid out for them to the grave of Imad Mughniyeh, a shadowy figure Israel and the West accused of masterminding terrorist bombings in the 1980s and 1990s. He was killed in a car bomb in neighboring Syria in February which Hezbollah blamed on Israel. Israel denied it.

"We swear by God ... to continue on your same path and not to retreat until we achieve the same stature that God bestowed on you," said Samir Kantar, who had been the longest-held Lebanese prisoner in Israel.

He referred to Mughniyeh's "martyrdom," saying, "This is our great wish. We envy you and we will achieve it, God willing."

Kantar had been convicted of a notorious 1979 attack where he allegedly killed a father in front of his 4-year-old daughter, and then killed the girl by crushing her skull with a rifle butt. He denied killing the daughter and claimed she was caught in the crossfire.

The girl's 2-year-old sister was accidentally smothered by her mother, who held her hand over the toddler's mouth to stifle her cries while the two hid in a crawl space.

In Jerusalem, an Israeli spokesman condemned the hero's welcome accorded to Kantar in Beirut Wednesday.

"Kantar is a brutal child murderer who instead of being rejected upon his return was cheered and greeted like a rock star and this is disgusting and deplorable," said David Baker, a spokesman from the Israeli prime minister's office.

A member of the Druse minority sect, Kantar and four Shiite Muslim guerrillas were freed in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in 2006. Their capture sparked a 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah.

In Israel, thousands mourned at the burials of the two soldiers Thursday.

Later in the day, hundreds of people welcomed Kantar in his hometown of Abey, a mountain hamlet 10 miles south of Beirut.

"This time yesterday, I was in the hands of the enemy. But at this moment, I am yearning more than before to confront them," Kantar said.

In the southern city of Sidon, a wooden platform set up for people to view the convoy of coffins collapsed. At least 10 people, including four news photographers, security officials said.

The coffins were taken later to a Hezbollah educational complex near Beirut airport where forensics experts began DNA tests in an attempt to identify the bodies.

Also Thursday, many Lebanese complained they were receiving recorded phone messages from Israel promising "harsh retaliation" to any future Hezbollah attack. The automated messages also warned against allowing Hezbollah to form "a state within a state" in Lebanon. The speaker signs off at the end of the phone messages with the words: "The State of Israel."

There was no immediate confirmation from Israel, though reports surfaced of similar Israeli phone campaigns during the 2006 war.

Israel has never confirmed involvement in such calls, but it is known to use a variety of propaganda and psychological techniques to try to reach Lebanese residents and persuade them not to support Hezbollah.

Lebanon's official National News Agency said residents in south and eastern Lebanon as well as the capital Beirut reporting receiving the calls. It said Telecommunications Minister Jibran Bassil contacted the United Nations to complain, calling it a "flagrant aggression against Lebanese sovereignty."