Big welcome awaits prisoners

Lebanon is preparing a triumphant official welcome for 23 Lebanese prisoners expected in Beirut on Thursday under a prisoner-swap agreement between Hizb Allah and Israel.

    Shaikh Abd al-Karim Ubaid (L) and Mustafa Dirani will be among those coming home

    The 23 men, some held for more than a decade, will fly in from Germany after being released by Israel and should land at Beirut airport late in the day. 

    They will be greeted by President Emile Lahud, Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, Hizb Allah chief Shaikh Hasan Nasr Allah, government and religious leaders, and MPs, officials said. 

    To add an international dimension, some members of the diplomatic corps in Beirut have been invited to the airport ceremony, including Arab ambassadors and two European ambassadors. 

    German ambassador Guenther Rudolf Kniess, whose country mediated the deal to free the detainees, and the head of the European Commission delegation to Lebanon, Patrick Renauld, have said they will also attend. 

    Under the accord, Israel will get back businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum after more than three years' captivity, and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers, who were abducted by Hizb Allah in October 2000. 

    Public rally

    At Beirut airport, a military band will play the national anthem, and the 23 former detainees will inspect a guard of honour. 

    This will be followed by a public rally in the southern suburbs of Beirut to be addressed by Nasr Allah, the chief of Hizb Allah, the Shia Muslim movement. 

    In villages throughout south Lebanon and in the Bekaa Valley -- home to most of the prisoners - residents on Wednesday were erecting yellow Hizb Allah flags, banners and portraits of the detainees. 

    "The conclusion of the negotiations... is a recognition by Israel of the legitimate Lebanese resistance and proves that Hizb Allah is not a terrorist organisation"

    A Lebanese resident

    "We are those who have not abandoned the prisoners, symbols of liberty and opposition to the (Israeli) occupation," read one banner. 

    In Jibchit, a giant portrait of Shaikh Abd al-Karim Ubaid, one of the most prominent Lebanese fighters being freed, occupied the place of honour at the entrance to the southern village. 

    The two leaders, Ubaid and Mustafa Dirani, were kidnapped by Israeli forces in 1989 and 1994 respectively. 

    Israel planned to use them to obtain information on the fate of its navigator Ron Arad who disappeared over Lebanon in 1986. But Israel resigned itself to freeing them so that the exchange, negotiated with Hizb Allah for several months, could go ahead. 

    Streets decorated

    Shaikh Hasan Nasr Allah will
    address a public rally on Thursday

    In the Bekaa village of Qsarnaba, home to Dirani, residents were also decorating the streets. 

    Lebanese leaders have increasingly commented about Hizb Allah's legitimacy, although the group is described by the United States and Israel as a "terrorist" movement. 

    "The conclusion of the negotiations... is a recognition by Israel of the legitimate Lebanese resistance and proves that Hizb Allah is not a terrorist organisation," said a Lebanese resident. 

    The Maronite patriarch, Monsignor Nasr Allah Sfeir, has also
    described the release of the detainees as a "great exploit for

    Besides Ubaid and Dirani and 21 other Lebanese, 400 Palestinian prisoners, five Syrians, three Moroccans, three Sudanese, a Libyan and a German are due to be freed by Israel. 

    It will also return the remains of 59 fighters, most of them



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