The prisoners came home on Thursday from Cologne, Germany, where the swap took place.

The freed detainees, 23 of whom are Lebanese, received a hero's welcome at Beirut International airport. Thousands of people waving Lebanese and yellow Hizb Allah flags lined the main road leading to the airport for a glimpse of the freed men.

Lebanon's President Emile Lahud, and Hizb Allah's Secretary General Hasan Nasr Allah  were among the many dignitaries that greeted the freed prisoners upon arrival.

Capturing more Israelis

During his speech in a ceremony marking the historic swap, Nasr Allah said his group would capture more Israelis as a last resort if Israel did not release its last Lebanese prisoner.

"We have three choices... The third choice is this," Nasr Allah said, pointing at a picture of a 2000 ambush during which Hizb Allah fighters  killed three Israeli soldiers and captured their bodies.

"Next time I promise you we will capture them alive," he told a rally in Beirut's southern suburbs attended by the freed Arab prisoners.  

Two not aboard flight

Palestinian prisoners are moved
from Israeli jails to crossings

Two of the freed Lebanese were not aboard the flight from the Cologne-Wahn airport, according to Hizb Allah's al-Manar television.

It said that two common law prisoners freed had chosen to stay in other countries.

Fuad Slim has decided to remain in Israel, while Fadi Alayyan,
who is wanted by Lebanese authorities, will stay in Germany, it said.

Apart from the Lebanese, former Syrian prisoners and North
Africans as well as a Libyan were aboard the flight from Germany, Al-Manar said, without specifying how many

Among those released are two prominent Hizb Allah leaders Shaikh Abd al-Karim Ubaid and Mustafa Dirani, kidnapped by Israel in 1989 and 1994 respectively.

They were being held as bargaining chips in exchange for information on missing Israeli airman Ron Arad, whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 during the war.

Israeli soldiers

"It was the right moral and ethical decision"

Ariel Sharon
Israeli PM

From the Israeli side, a plane carrying released Israeli Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers, all captured in separate incidents in October 2000, arrived in Tel Aviv  on Thursday.

"It was the right moral and ethical decision," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in a brief address during an emotional ceremony in Tel Aviv to mark the return of the soldiers.

"Difficult decisions cannot be avoided ... and we took into
account every single aspect.

"There is one factor that is overwhelming that is called Jewish emotions. This is a Jewish value that is grounded in the soil of Israel," he said.

Under the German-mediated deal, Israel released 400 Palestinians, 23 Lebanese and 12 Arab detainees in exchange for Tannenbaum and the three soldiers.

Hizb Allah says Tannenbaum is a Mossad spy while Israel insists he is a businessman.

The swap swiftly started after Israel confirmed the identity of three soldiers. Palestinian detainees, some held without trial or charge, were released in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip Under the two-phase deal, Israel will also repatriate the bodies of 59 Lebanese fighters.

Fighters' bodies

Lebanon has prepared a glorious
welcome for the freed prisoners
Also on Thursday, the Israeli army returned the bodies of 59 mainly Lebanese fighters through a Red Cross intermediary.

"Sixty bodies have been handed over by Israel to the ICRC," said the organisation's representative to Lebanon, Antoine Bieler, without giving an explanation on the discrepancy in numbers.

Earlier, on the Lebanese side of the border, an AFP
correspondent saw seven large lorries head for Israel to recover the remains.

The trucks, bearing the insignia of the ICRC, were accompanied by three light vehicles and crossed the frontier shortly before midday.

The bodies were expected to remain in the Lebanese border zone under control of the United Nations before being handed over officially to the Lebanese authorities and Hizb Allah on Friday morning.