Lebanese prisoners, some held up to 13 years, were released by Israel Friday and crossed to freedom in southern Lebanon, completing a swap between the two foes.
Thousands of relatives and well-wishers greeted the former prisoners as they arrived on three buses at a Lebanese army checkpoint at Kfar Falous, on the edge of the Israeli-occupied zone.Prisoners smiled and waved as people broke into tears and showered rice on the buses in a traditional Arab welcome.
Soldiers tried to keep order as activists swarmed around the buses and on their roofs, shouting "Allahu Akbar," or "God is Great."
Earlier, Israel handed the 60 Lebanese prisoners over to the Red Cross in the second stage of a deal between Lebanon and Israel. Four chose to return to their homes in the occupied zone and one decided to stay in Israel, Lebanese media quoted Red Cross officials as saying. The Red Cross mediated the exchange.
The first stage occurred Thursday, when Lebanon exchanged the remains of an Israeli soldier for the bodies of 40 guerrillas.
At Kfar Falous, flags from the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah and Amal guerrilla groups as well as that of the Lebanese Communist Party and the national flag hung from light poles and trees along the road, reflecting the makeup of those to be released.
Hezbollah supporters shouted "Death to Israel" and some communist activists wore T-shirts with portraits of South American communist revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
Most of the prisoners were held without trial - some for 14 years - on suspicion of aiding guerrillas fighting Israeli forces.
Lebanese officials said that with Friday's release, 167 prisoners remain in the Khiam detention camp in the Israeli-occupied zone or in Israel.
Anis Fouani, 63, said he felt "extreme happiness and joy" as he awaited the arrival of his son, Ali, who was 17 when Israeli forces took him from his home in the occupied zone and jailed him in Khiam 14 years ago.
"We're all with the resistance until the liberation of south Lebanon," he said.
In 1985, Israel declared the border strip it occupies a "security zone" to protect northern Israeli towns from attacks. Hezbollah has been fighting to evict the Israelis.
Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri were expected to greet the prisoners in Sidon later in the day.
An Israeli government statement said the prisoners to be released did not have "blood on their hands."
Among them was Hussein Mikdad, who was crippled when a bomb exploded prematurely in his Jerusalem hotel room two years ago. Israeli reports said he had been planning to blow up an Israeli airliner.
The release of prisoners followed the exchange late Thursday of the remains of Israeli Sgt. 1st Class Itamar Ilya for the bodies of 40 Hezbollah, Amal and communist guerrillas killed in clashes with Israeli forces.