Militant released in swap

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 supporters after spending nearly three decades in Israeli prison.

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

Kuntar, a notorious militant, was captured by Israel in 1979 after taking part in a brutal attack that ended with the deaths of four Israelis, including two young girls.

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.”

Lebanon's fractious leadership, including Hezbollah's bitter political rivals, joined together for a ceremony at Beirut's 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 coffins.

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

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.