BEIRUT, Lebanon (AP) – Israel returned to Lebanon on Friday the remains of three Hezbollah guerrillas killed by in cross-border fighting this week in a move that averted a further deterioration along the tense Lebanese-Israeli frontier.
The bodies were brought to southern Lebanon”s Naqoura border crossing on the Mediterranean coastline at midmorning by vehicles of the International Committee of the Red Cross before being transferred into Lebanese ambulances.
The hand over was monitored by peacekeepers from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, which has its headquarters in Naqoura.
Lebanon demanded the return of the bodies as a step toward defusing the tensions along the Lebanese-Israeli border, which erupted in heavy clashes this week. Israel killed four guerrillas on Monday and took three of the bodies, while the fourth Hezbollah member died on the Lebanese side.
The Israeli army said in a statement that the three bodies were returned to Lebanon "following the Lebanese government”s urgent request to do so."
Israel has previously held onto the bodies of Hezbollah fighters for long periods before eventually swapping them with Lebanon for the remains of Israeli soldiers or prisoners. But its quick return this time reflects both Israel”s and Lebanon”s keenness to restore calm on their shared frontier and deny Hezbollah a pretext to launch further attacks against the Jewish state.
Hezbollah guerrillas clad in black uniforms lined both sides of a stretch of road at Naqoura, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of the capital, Beirut, and saluted as the caskets were carried past on the shoulders of other members of the armed group.
Hezbollah”s yellow flags both wrapped the coffins and fluttered from flagpoles in the breeze as a band played martial music.
Families of the guerrillas and Hezbollah supporters were among several hundred people waiting for the bodies. Some threw flower petals at the caskets, while Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon, Sheik Nabil Kaouk, placed wreaths on them.
Shouts of "Death to Israel" and "Death to America," the trademark Hezbollah slogans, rang out from young supporters who punched the air with their fists and praised Hezbollah and its leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah.
Rabih Bawad, brother of slain guerrilla Wissam Bawab, said he was happy to see his body returned. "We hold our head high with martyr Wissam and his comrades and we wish to continue on this course," he said on Hezbollah”s al-Manar television from Naqoura.
A larger ceremony is planned for later Friday in Hezbollah”s southern Beirut stronghold.
Monday”s fighting, in which 11 Israeli soldiers were also wounded, was the heaviest in recent times and saw Israeli warplanes and artillery bombard Hezbollah positions and guerrillas fire missiles at Israeli military outposts.
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. Also Wednesday, Israeli planes dropped thousands of anti-Hezbollah leaflets over Beirut and other
Prime Minister Fuad Saniora called for the return of the guerrillas” bodies to help defuse the tensions. Lebanese Health Minister Mohammed Jawad Khalife, whose Amal Shiite Muslim group is allied with Hezbollah, warned Thursday that the militant group might try to kidnap Israelis to trade for the bodies.
The return of the bodies comes as the U.N. Security Council accused Hezbollah of starting this week”s attacks. But Lebanon”s government, of which Hezbollah is a coalition partner, backed the guerrillas despite the international pressure.
Reacting to the U.N. Security Council statement, Foreign Minister Fawzi Salloukh said Lebanon”s repeated complaints about Israeli violations "were not met with the necessary decisiveness" by the international community.
Hezbollah, a close ally of Syria and Iran, has denied initiating the attacks. But it is thought the group may have been trying both to capture Israeli soldiers for a future exchange of prisoners and to take the international pressure off Syria, which is at the center of a U.N. probe into the assassination of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri.
Last year, Hezbollah swapped an Israeli businessman and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers for about 400 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners.