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Lebanon hails militants freed in prisoner swap

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  • NEW: Lebanese president welcomes ex-prisoners as "our dear liberated heroes"
  • Israeli leader slams celebrations of release of convicted murderer Samir Kuntar
  • Four other released prisoners also enter Lebanon, Israel Defense Forces says
  • Remains turned over by Hezbollah identified as Israeli soldiers, Israel says
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BEIRUT, Lebanon (CNN) -- Five Lebanese militants, including a convicted murderer, received heroes' welcomes Wednesday as they returned to Beirut from Israel as part of a prisoner swap.

The remains of Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev, left, and Ehud "Udi" Goldwasser have been identified.

Released militant Samir Kuntar is greeted by supporters as he arrives Wednesday in Naqoura, Lebanon.

Once in Beirut, convicted murderer Samir Kuntar -- who was the longest-held Lebanese prisoner in Israel -- told a crowd of thousands he'd continue to fight for the liberation of the Palestinian territories.

"I return today from Palestine, but believe me, I return to Lebanon only in order to return to Palestine," Kuntar said.

Kuntar -- convicted of killing a man and a girl in Israel in 1979 -- and the other four were released by Israel and crossed into southern Lebanon to cheers. They then were flown to Beirut, where Lebanese President Michel Suleiman called them "our dear liberated heroes."

The other four are Lebanese militants captured during the Hezbollah-Israel war two years ago. Israel on Wednesday also released the remains of 199 fighters from Lebanon.

Earlier Wednesday, Hezbollah released to Israel the bodies of two Israeli soldiers who had been abducted in 2006, the Israel Defense Forces said.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, making his first public appearance since September 2006, also greeted the five militants before cheering throngs of thousands of Hezbollah supporters in Beirut.

"I'm here to congratulate all of you," Nasrallah said. "As we said in the year 2000, the time of defeat is done and now it is a time of victories." Because of security concerns, Nasrallah typically does not appear in public.

Suleiman said Lebanon "feels very proud as we welcome back the heroic resistance fighters who were released from the Israeli occupation."

"We also feel proud of the martyrs whose bodies were returned here today," Suleiman said.

Upon their arrival in southern Lebanon, the five released militants changed into military garb and were greeted by the handshakes and embraces of dignitaries and officials before crowds of Hezbollah supporters. Video Watch Kuntar smile as he enters Lebanon »

They then were taken by two Lebanese Army helicopters and a U.N. Interim Forces in Lebanon helicopter from Naqoura in southern Lebanon to Beirut International Airport, where they were met on the red carpet by Suleiman and other government officials, including Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, and were reunited with their families at an airport reception area.

After that reunion, they were driven to al Raya stadium in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, for Hezbollah celebrations.

Kuntar is widely reviled in Israel, where Prime Minister Ehud Olmert denounced the celebrations in Lebanon.

"Woe to the nation that celebrates in these hours the release of a bestial person who smashed the head of a 4-year-old child," Olmert said in a statement. Video Watch happy Hezbollah supporters »

A member of the Palestine Liberation Front, Kuntar led a group of four men who entered Israel from Lebanon by boat in 1979. They killed a police officer who came across them. Then they took a 28-year-old man and his 4-year-old daughter hostage.

Kuntar shot the father dead at close range in front of his daughter and tossed his body in the sea. He then smashed the girl's head, killing her. In addition, a 2-year-old girl from the same family suffocated as her mother tried to stop her from crying while they hid during the violence.

Kuntar was sentenced to 542 years in prison.

Israel refused to release him during a previous prisoner exchange. Because of the stiff sentence for Kuntar, Lebanese reports indicate that the news of his release stunned many people.

As part of Wednesday's exchange, Israel received the bodies of 1st Sgt. Ehud "Udi" Goldwasser and Sgt. 1st Class Eldad Regev.

The bodies "were positively identified by representatives of the IDF Military Rabbinate, the Medical Corps and other forensic experts at the Rosh Hanikra crossing," the IDF said.

Their funerals will take place Thursday. Goldwasser's will be in Nahariya and Regev's in Kryat Motzkin. Video Watch Goldwasser's father describe his feelings about the swap »

"The whole of the Israeli nation embraces today the families of Regev and Goldwasser in their mourning," Olmert said.

Also as part of the exchange, the IDF said, "Hezbollah has just relayed a coffin containing body parts of IDF soldiers who were killed in the Second Lebanon War," a reference to the 2006 conflict.

These are separate from the remains of Regev and Goldwasser, whose bodies were said to be in "poor condition" when they were returned to Israel.

Another element of the swap was a report by Hezbollah on the status of Ron Arad, a long-missing Israeli navigator.

Israel was displeased with the report but didn't provide details on why officials considered it deficient. Despite Olmert's calling the report "absolutely unsatisfactory," the Israeli Cabinet approved the swap in a 22-3 vote Tuesday.

Olmert said Wednesday "is a day where doubts are removed regarding the fate of Udi and Eldad, may they rest in peace, but also to the moral strength of the Israeli people," Olmert said.


"From this strength we have decided to bring the boys home even if the price is heavy of releasing the base murderer," Olmert said. "A stranger will not understand what every Israeli understands very well. The fate of every one of our soldiers is the glue that binds us together as a society and allows us to survive in an area that is surrounded by enemies and terror organizations."

Coffins bearing the remains of the 199 fighters were being trucked from Israel into Lebanon on Wednesday, and funerals for them are scheduled for Thursday.

CNN's Ben Wedeman and Anthony Mills contributed to this report.

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