Lebanon prepares for prisoners' return

Lebanon prepares for prisoners' return

Lebanon has declared Wednesday a day off to welcome Lebanese prisoners slated to be freed by Israel, dpa reported.

A statement issued by Prime Minister Fouad Seniora said the shutdown includes public departments and businesses as well as municipalities and educational institutions.

On Wednesday Israel will carry out a prisoner exchange with the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah for the return of two soldiers who were captured in a cross-border raid in July 2006, sparking a 33-day war on Lebanon.

In return, Israel will free five imprisoned Lebanese, among them Samir Kuntar, who is serving multiple life sentences for killing an Israeli policeman and another man and his four-year-old daughter in 1979.

Meanwhile, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) has gone on full alert for the anticipated swap.

"All our staff in Lebanon are on alert and our delegates will head to the Naqoura border crossing early in the morning," said Christian Cardon, the ICRC's communication coordinator.

The swap was scheduled to start at the Naqoura border crossing with Israel at 0600 GMT but due to "technical reasons" Israel has asked to delay it until 0800 GMT, a local Lebanese television station reported.

Hezbollah along with the families of the released prisoners will have a symbolic ceremony at Naqoura, the prisoners will then be transferred by presidential helicopter to Beirut International Airport where they will receive an official welcome by Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman along with other Lebanese officials.

The prisoners will then attend a huge celebration at Beirut's southern suburbs, a hotbed of Hezbollah, where the group's leader Sheikh Hassan Nasarallah will deliver a speech at 1800 GMT.

By nightfall Tuesday, all streets around Beirut's International Airport and entrances to Beirut's southern suburbs were full of pictures of the prisoners due to arrive on Wednesday as well as Hezbollah and Lebanese flags.

Lebanon is also to receive the bodies of some 199 guerrillas, among them seven bodies of Hezbollah militants and the rest Palestinian guerrillas who fell in various attacks against Israel between 1978 and 1982.

The hometown of Samir Kuntar, Abey, was also decorated with his pictures on Tuesday night and candles were lit along the streets of the village.

Kuntar is set to receive a warm welcome by his relatives and friends in his hometown on Thursday morning.

"Samir Kuntar is the conscience of Lebanon, Palestine and the Arab nation. Abey welcomes the hero, prisoner Samir Kuntar," read one sign.

The house of Kuntar in Abey, a Druze village south-east of Beirut, was also decorated with pictures and his mother, Siham, was seen putting white flowers all around her house.

"I want to greet him with flowers when he arrives to his home after 30 years," Siham told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

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