Thousands of Lebanese today gathered at the Kfar Falous border crossing to receive the freed prisoners. They were there early in the morning and waited until 1:00 p.m. this afternoon when the buses carrying the prisoners appeared accompanied by a convoy of International Red Cross Representatives. The prisoners were received by representatives from Hizbullah, the Amal Movement, and the Communist Party. The ICRC Lebanon Representative Jean Jacques Fresard told reporters at the border five of the 60 awaited prisoners decided not to come to Lebanon, one of whom decided to stay inside Israel and four others stayed in areas in the occupied territories. Fresard added this was their personal free choice.
Some sources reported the names of four of these freed prisoners: Maher Touma, Bassam Hasbani, Ramzi Nahra, and Saleem Salameh (remained inside Israel). They were detained in February 1996. Talking to freed prisoners at the border, some of them said they did not believe they were going to be released until the Red Cross came to their camps last night.
Many freed prisoners looked pale and tired. ICRC reports indicate that many of them are suffering from a variety of illnesses ranging from short-sightedness to stomach and back pains to a number of psychological problems. Some of them even suffered organ mutilation with no apparent reason. More than 150 detainees are still held by Israel without trial. Torture, whether physical or psychological, is systematic in these jails.
The convoy of buses carrying the freed detainees headed to Majdelyoon where a welcoming ceremony was held at the Hariri residence. Huge numbers of parents and friends were waiting for them there with a mixture of painful and pleasant feelings. They arrived at 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon. Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri was there along with a huge number of Lebanese deputies, officials and residents, especially parents of detainees. Many of the freed prisoners were in a very exhausted state, some of whom were even confused, unable to believe they are free at last and re-united with their mothers, wives, fathers, sisters, brothers and children. Some children could not recognize their fathers after 10, 12, or 13 years of imprisonment.
In a statement, Prime Minister Hariri welcomed all the freed detainees and their families. He thanked all parties involved in the complex and difficult negotiations which preceded the swap operation and extended over a period of nine months. Hariri added the Lebanese people is a resisting people but also said that the Lebanese people want peace too. Hariri later stressed the necessity of Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon and the Golan Heights reiterating the joint Syrian-Lebanese tracks. He also promised to participate in enabling those freed prisoners to lead a normal life and re-integrate in their societies.
A French plane carrying 40 Lebanese martyrs arrived yesterday at 11:00 p.m. at Beirut's International Airport. The same plane had carried the remains of the Israeli soldier Itmar Ilya who died during the botched Israeli commando operation on Ansariyeh last year. Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri along with other government officials participated in the official ceremony that was held in honor of the martyrs. Several relatives of the dead resistance men were also there watching the return of their fallen loved ones. The martyrs are expected to be buried starting today in Tyre, Beirut and other Lebanese areas.
President Elias Al-Hrawi today said the government could successfully accomplish the swap operation thanking all Lebanon's friends for their direct assistance and support. Hrawi stressed Lebanon's success in regaining 60 detainees and 40 martyrs was a result of the support of all the Lebanese people to their government. Hrawi added this victory also resulted from the support of Lebanon's friends. He especially thanked Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad, France, the International Red Cross Committee and all other participants who ensured the success of such a big step. Hrawi reiterated Lebanon's adherence to a fair and comprehensive peace deal in the region also stressing the unity of the Lebanese-Syrian tracks.
Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai today praised the role played by France and the International Red Cross in the negotiations that preceded the swap operation. Mordechai added that the American administration and especially the US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright also participated in the accomplishment of the operation. Mordechai was speaking during an inspection tour inside the occupied zone in the area where a resistance operation was carried out yesterday killing two Israeli soldiers and wounding four others. Mordechai was accompanied by the Israeli commander Amiram Levine.
Former Minister Fouad Boutrous today visited Beirut MP Tammam Salam. Boutrous later said Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri's visit to Washington was useful. He also hoped that the municipal and mayoral elections recently carried out in the country would constitute a step forward in the country's revival plan. Boutrous added his discussions with Salam tackled the recent local elections and the outcome of Prime Minister Hariri's visit to the US.
On the swap operation, Boutrous praised the efforts paid by the government in this regard.
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