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Nasrallah appears in person at Beirut celebration

Freed Samir Kuntar hails "day of victory"

Published:

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah appeared in person at public celebrations in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Wednesday to claim victory following the release of five Lebanese prisoners from Israel.

"The period of defeat is over and the time of victory has arrived," Nasrallah told a cheering crowd of tens of thousands of supporters.

Next to him was Samir Kuntar, freed earlier Wednesday from an Israeli prison along with four Hezbollah fighters as part of a prisoner swap.

"This people and this nation and this country that gave a clear picture to the world... cannot be defeated," Nasrallah said.

The prisoner exchange deal saw the five Lebanese prisoners turned over for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers Hezbollah had captured in a cross-border raid in 2006 -- Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

Their capture sparked a devastating 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in which over 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and over 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed.

Nasrallah said that by not revealing the fates of the captured soldiers his group had been put in a position of strength in negotiating the swap.

"Had their fates been revealed in a tactical error, the negotiations would have taken a different course," he said.

"If we had been defeated in July 2006, Samir and the martyrs would not have been returned today," he later told the crowd appearing on a screen standing in front of a blue curtain with a white dove carrying a banner that said "the Radwan operation."

Hezbollah has dubbed the swap "the Radwan operation after the alias used by notorious Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughnieh, who was killed in a bombing in Syria in February for which Hezbollah has blamed Israel.

Nasrallah said: "Our only concern is to defend our country, its territory, its water and its people and are open to all discussion for a national defense strategy to do that."

Newly elected President Michel Suleiman, who greeted the prisoners at the airport, called for the formation of a national defense strategy in his inaugural speech in May.

Nasrallah calls for unity

Nasrallah called on Lebanese factions to reunite and "overcome sensitivities and move away from grudges and take advantage of the opportunity to address the problems in a spirit of solidarity in the national unity government."

A Lebanese national unity cabinet was formed on Friday after a debilitating political crisis left a six-month void in the presidency and culminated in a Hezbollah-led takeover of west Beirut in May.

Fighting between supporters of the Iran- and Syria- backed opposition and the ruling bloc, backed by the West and most Arab states, left 65 people dead.

"Within the framework of a national unity government, we are willing to cooperate in dealing with all the issues without exception in order to serve the national interest and unity," Nasrallah added.

This was a reference to the issue of Hezbollah's arms, which has become increasingly controversial domestically after the incidents in May.

Kuntar hails "day of victory"

Kuntar told the cheering crowds he thanked God for giving him the strength to endure his almost three-decade imprisonment, which made him the longest-serving Arab prisoner in Israel.

"Thank God we arrived to this day; this day of victory, never to return to a day of defeat. Thank God who gave me strength... and who always gave me hope in the moments of weaknesses," Kuntar said.

"Thank God who gave me the ability to endure, challenge and face imprisonment. Thank God (who) resurrected in this country a resistance, this great Islamic resistance," he added.

The last time Nasrallah gave a public speech was in September 2006 in a victory celebration among the ruins of the southern suburbs of Beirut destroyed during the July-August 2006 war Hezbollah fought with Israel after Regev and Goldwasser had been captured.

He appeared in public for a few minutes among crowds in January during the Shiite Muslim holiday of Ashura.