Israel Returns Bodies of Three Guerrillas
BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) _ Israel returned to Lebanon on Friday the corpses of three Hezbollah guerrillas killed this week in fierce fighting in a disputed border area _ an unusually quick return intended to restore calm. Hezbollah’s leader told supporters the group would nonetheless continue to try to kidnap Israeli soldiers.
``It is our natural right to capture Israel soldiers,″ Sheik Hassan Nasrallah told a rally in the Hezbollah stronghold of south Beirut. ``Indeed, it is our duty to do that.″
Hezbollah’s show of force _ attacks on the Lebanese-Israeli border and Friday’s mass rally _ aimed to affirm the group’s significance as a main player in Lebanese politics and as a key to stability with Israel.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora had demanded Wednesday that Israel return the bodies, saying it was necessary to restore calm after the heaviest clashes in years on Monday.
Israel handed the bodies to the International Red Cross, which drove them through the Naqoura crossing on the Lebanese-Israeli border on Friday.
Israel has previously kept the bodies of Hezbollah fighters for long periods _ sometimes years at a time _ eventually returning them in negotiated swaps for the remains of Israeli soldiers or prisoners. Its quick delivery this week indicates a desire to defuse tension on the border and to deny Hezbollah a pretext to launch further attacks.
Further, Israel knows that an escalation in border fighting would turn Lebanon’s attention away from the country’s main preoccupation _ the U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and relations with Syria. The investigation has implicated top officials in Syria, a longtime enemy of Israel.
Sheik Nasrallah was on hand to welcome the guerrillas’ coffins when they arrived in Lebanese ambulances at a complex south of Beirut. Families of the guerrillas were among several hundred mourners. Some threw flower petals at the caskets, which were wrapped in Hezbollah’s yellow flag.
``We are used to martyrdom. I have five more (sons) and I am ready to offer them,″ Ibrahim Mousawi, the father of slain guerrilla Mohammed Mousawi, told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television.
In his speech, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah said he did not consider the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers to be a crime, and Hezbollah’s attacks this week had sent a message that the group is still ready to defend Lebanon.
``We are not weak and we will not be weakened ... we are not afraid and we will not be frightened,″ he said in a speech to thousands of supporters that was interrupted several times by their roars of ``Death to Israel!″ and ``Death to America!″
After his speech, Hezbollah pall bearers carried the three coffins to a podium where Nasrallah, a medium-ranking cleric, prayed for their souls.
The U.N. Security Council accused Hezbollah of starting Monday’s fighting _ something Hezbollah denies. It is thought the group may have been trying both to capture Israeli soldiers for a future exchange of prisoners and to take the pressure off Syria stemming from the U.N. investigation into Hariri’s assassination.
In the fighting, Hezbollah guerrillas fired rockets at Israeli military posts, and Israel retaliated with airstrikes and an artillery bombardment. Eleven Israeli soldiers were wounded and four guerrillas were killed. The fourth guerrilla was carried back into Lebanon by his comrades and buried on Tuesday.
Fighting briefly resumed Wednesday when an Israeli civilian in a hang glider drifted across the border and landed inside Lebanon. Israeli troops shot at Hezbollah guerrillas to prevent them capturing the civilian as he ran back to Israel.
Last year, Hezbollah swapped an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers for about 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners.