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Jubilant Lebanese welcome home man Israelis say killed 3

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, stands with released prisoner Samir Kantar, left, during celebrations in Beirut.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, stands with released prisoner Samir Kantar, left, during celebrations in Beirut. Associated Press

ROSH HANIKRAH, Israel — As an Israeli military convoy carrying two flag-wrapped coffins wound slowly through Israel on Wednesday, convicted killer Samir Kuntar walked down a red carpet in a Lebanese village where he waved to throngs of jubilant supporters after spending nearly three decades in Israeli prison.

In a daylong drama, the final chapter in Israel's costly 2006 war against Hezbollah came to a controversial close. Israel released Kuntar and four Hezbollah militants in return for two slain Israeli soldiers whose capture set off the 34-day conflict.

As Kuntar soaked up his first hours of freedom in Naqoura, he stood in the shadow of Hezbollah banners, printed in English to drive home to Western eyes the militant group's public relations triumph: "Pain in Israel; Joy in Lebanon."

The exchange sparked nationwide celebrations in Lebanon and mourning in Israel that reignited an unsettled debate over who won the 2006 war.

To Eli Ishmereni, a 50-year-old Israeli who stood in humid heat near the border crossing to await return of the nation's fallen soldiers, the answer is clear.

"It wasn't worth it," Ishmereni said of the war. "Today Hezbollah is even stronger, has more arms and more support."

Israel and Lebanon were united in one respect, greeting their returning fighters as heroes. Beyond that, the two nations were ever-more divided.

Lebanon's fractious leadership, including Hezbollah's bitter political rivals, joined together for a ceremony at Beirut's international airport to hail Kuntar as a valiant warrior.

"Your return is a new victory," Lebanese President Michel Suleiman told the returning prisoners. "And the future with you will only be a shining march."

At a closed military base, Israel's political leaders privately consoled the families of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the slain Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah in the July 12, 2006 cross-border raid.

"Our throats are parched, our eyes have tears and our hearts go out to the family members who struggled without a sign and never lost hope until the last moment," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said shortly before meeting with the despondent relatives.

Just what happened to Goldwasser and Regev wasn't certain until a black SUV pulled up to the Lebanese border with Israel and Hezbollah pulled out two black coffins.

Even then, some relatives held out hope that the bodies inside might not be their loved ones.

Within hours, medical tests confirmed that Goldwasser and Regev had died after the July 12 ambush, something Olmert had told Israelis to expect when he urged his coalition cabinet to support the deal.

Along with return of Goldwasser and Regev, Israeli received more information on the fate of Ron Arad, an Israeli air force navigator captured by Lebanese militants when his plane went down in 1986. While the new details failed to answer the question of what happened to Arad, Israel decided to go ahead with the rest of the deal.

In exchange for the two bodies, Israel agreed to release Kuntar, a notorious militant captured by Israel in 1979 after taking part in a brutal attack that ended with the deaths of four Israelis, including two young girls.

Kuntar was a teenager when he was convicted of shooting an Israeli father to death and drowning him in the Mediterranean as his 4-year-old daughter looked on. Then Kuntar smashed the girl's head with a rifle butt and against seaside boulders.

Along with Kuntar, Israel released four Hezbollah militants and the bodies of nearly 200 Palestinian and Lebanese fighters killed in battles over the decades.

It was a deal supported by relatives of Goldwasser and Regev who hoped that it would end two years of uncertainty and anguish.

Israeli leaders cast the deal as a painful-but-unavoidable step that underscored not Israel's failings, but its moral strength as a nation that won't leave any soldier behind on the battlefield.

"There is no happy ending here," said Miri Eisin, a retired colonel in the Israeli military who served as Olmert's spokeswoman during the war. "But the sense of closure means that we can go from pain to grief."

While the families prepared to bury Regev and Goldwasser on Thursday, Hezbollah leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, staged a massive welcome home celebration for Kuntar — a Lebanese militant imprisoned before Hezbollah was established — and the four other prisoners.

"The era of defeats is over and a new era of victories has begun," Nasrallah told tens of thousands of supporters waving Hezbollah flags.

In his first public statement after nearly 30 years in Israeli prison, Kuntar delivered a defiant speech in which he thanked Nasrallah and made a vow to stage more attacks on Israel.

Dressed in military fatigues with a yellow Hezbollah banner around his neck, Kuntar made a promise: "We are returning to Palestine with my brothers the mujahadeen and the Islamic resistance."

Shlomo Goldwasser, Ehud's father, criticized Lebanon for praising a man convicted of such brutal killings.

"This is a hero?" Goldwasser asked. "These are their achievements? For me he is nothing more than a little bastard. I hope he doesn't sleep tonight."

Freeing Kuntar was a central reason Hezbollah staged the 2006 border attack. Over the next 34 days, more than 160 Israelis and at least 1,000 Lebanese civilians were killed. But Olmert failed to secure return of Goldwasser and Regev — something that undercut his popularity and helped cultivate a widespread feeling in Israel that the war had been a failure.

(Nissenbaum reported from northern Israel, McClatchy special correspondent Nayel from Beirut, Lebanon. Special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed to this report from Jerusalem.)

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