Lebanese returnees arrive at Beirut International airport

Five prisoners released by Israel as part of a swap landed Wednesday in Beirut International airport and were greeted by Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman, other leaders and family members and friends amid jubilant scenes.

Emotions ran high in the airport's VIP lounge as the families were united with their loved ones. "I have waited for this moment for 30 years," the mother of Samir Kuntar, longest-held of the five prisoners, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

Fireworks lit up the skies near the airport as the released prisoners arrived, helicoptered in by the Lebanese army from Naqoura, the border point where they were handed over by Israel.

Suleiman along with Prime Minister Fouad Seniora, house Speaker Nabih Berri and MPs from the Lebanese opposition and the ruling majority were among those on hand to welcome them.

"We raise our heads with those prisoners. Our joy will be completed with the return of Shebaa Farms to Lebanon," said Suleiman, in a reference to the farms still in Israeli hands after the Jewish state ended its 22-year occupation of Lebanon in 2000.

"Your return today is a blessing for all Lebanon," Suleiman said. "I thank all parties who worked hard to ensure this swap and returned you home to us."

Opposition Christian leader Michel Aoun added his welcome: "All of Lebanon is united to greet the prisoners, who are today returning to us."

Crowds of Hezbollah followers lined the streets leading to Beirut airport to greet the returnees, who were to attend a massive Hezbollah rally in Beirut's southern suburbs.

There was speculation that Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah would appear in public for the first time since December 2006 to greet the prisoners personally and deliver a speech.

Earlier, the five released prisoners were applauded by hundreds of Hezbollah supporters as they walked on the red carpet laid specially for them in Naqoura, a few kilometres from the border with Israel.

Wearing military fatigues and hats, the five were escorted by Hezbollah militants carrying Lebanese, Palestinian and Hezbollah flags as the crowd threw flowers at them.

A squad of Hezbollah guerrillas lined up on the side of the red carpet saluted the prisoners as they walked towards the podium which was set up specially for them.

Hezbollah songs echoed in the air as the five waved and raised their arms in victory signs.

Earlier, the prisoners were greeted by Hezbollah officials at the Naqoura crossing on the Lebanese side of the border.

"I am happy to be home," said Samir Kuntar, longest-held Lebanese prisoner, in a brief statement as he crossed into Lebanon.

The other four, all Hezbollah members, kissed officials of their movement as they alighted from Red Cross vehicles that brought them to freedom.

Kuntar, wearing a grey sweatshirt and blue jeans, was greeted by Hezbollah official Wafik Safa. As the prisoners entered Lebanese territory, boats decked in Hezbollah and Lebanese flags sailed along the coast near Naqoura, dpa reported.

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