BEIRUT, Lebanon – Lebanese prisoners released by Israel returned home Thursday to a hero's welcome by tens of thousands of flag-waving people, from Hezbollah (search) guerrilla comrades to veiled women who showered them in rice and rose petals.
Israel also freed about 400 Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of the German-brokered deal with Hezbollah. Delighted relatives greeted the Palestinians and expressed thanks to the Lebanese militant group.
In return, Israel received the bodies of three of its soldiers and won the release of a kidnapped Israeli businessman. Israelis held a memorial service for the three dead, but whisked away Elhanan Tannenbaum (search), who was kidnapped while reportedly engaged in a shady business deal, for interrogation.
At a mass rally in Beirut that Hezbollah staged to welcome the freed Arabs, the group's leader warned it would kidnap more Israelis to use as bargaining chips if necessary to secure the release of Lebanese prisoners.
Turning to a huge poster of a guerrilla ambush in which the three Israeli soldiers were captured, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah declared: "This is a choice."
At the memorial service at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv — where the three caskets were covered with Israeli flags and a woman sang mournfully — Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) warned against more kidnappings.
The complex swap — carried out in two stages in Germany and in the Palestinian territories following months of arduous negotiations — went ahead despite Thursday's bombing of a Jerusalem bus that killed 11 people, including the attacker.
The prisoner exchange boosts the regional standing of Hezbollah because of its success in freeing Palestinian prisoners and in extracting concessions from Israel. The United States lists Hezbollah as a terrorist group.
The swap also sets the stage for a second phase in which Israel hopes to recover its most famous MIA, air force navigator Ron Arad, and the Arab side seeks the release of more prominent prisoners in Israel.
Israel's keen interest in Arad is tempered by its fear that further engaging the Lebanese militia could encourage kidnappings and bolster the radical brand of Islam espoused by Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons.
"Israel will not allow any enemy or terror group to turn kidnapping and ransom into a system," Sharon said. "There are means we have not yet used. If, heaven forbid, the circumstances are changed, we will not hesitate to use them."
But no threats could dampen the celebration in Beirut, where fireworks lit the night sky and the government greeted the returning men with a red carpet, a brass band and an honor guard.
Tens of thousands of people lined the airport highway for several miles and packed the Hezbollah rally in south Beirut.
Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid (search), a Hezbollah leader and one of the most famous prisoners released, was first to step off the plane. Sporting a long, gray beard, he wore a white clerical Shiite Muslim turban and walked steadily. He was followed by another well-known former prisoner, guerrilla leader Mustafa Dirani (search).
Obeid burst into tears as his children and other relatives mobbed him, hugging and kissing. The scene was repeated with other men, who met their loved ones at the airport VIP lounge.
"I feel like I'm born again," Obeid said, offering salutes to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah's leader.
Hezbollah, a Shiite organization, gained inspiration and training in the 1980s from Iran and continues to receive backing from the clerical regime there.
Israeli commandos abducted Obeid in 1989 and Dirani in 1994.
"We hope for more victories and more liberation of prisoners, God willing," Dirani said by phone from the German government plane that brought the men to Lebanon.
Israel's release of the Palestinian prisoners marked the first stage of the swap.
In the second stage, Israel brought 28 Arabs and a German national and Hezbollah brought the businessman and soldiers' coffins to an airport in Cologne, Germany. After the exchange, planes took off for Tel Aviv and Beirut.
Israel turned over the remains of 60 Lebanese militants as part of the deal. An Israeli military truck took the bodies to Israel's northern border with Lebanon. Israeli soldiers placed the wooden coffins into a Red Cross truck, which rumbled through a border crossing.
Minutes before the German plane landed in Beirut, an Israeli aircraft arrived in Tel Aviv, carrying Tannenbaum and the coffins of the three soldiers.
Tannenbaum, a colonel in the Israeli army reserves who was held captive in Lebanon for over three years, had a short reunion with his family before being taken for a medical checkup in police custody. There were concerns in Israel he may have given state secrets to Hezbollah.
The elaborate exchange process underlined the animosity between Lebanon and Israel, who remain at war.
The Lebanese government turned out to greet the newly freed prisoners. President Emile Lahoud and Hezbollah leader Nasrallah led scores of dignitaries in welcoming the men on the tarmac.
The former prisoners were taken from the airport in a long convoy. Hezbollah guerrillas, dressed in black uniforms and green berets, ran on foot next to the cars. The convoy made its way slowly through the throng on the airport highway as veiled women threw rose petals and rice.
Loudspeakers blared patriotic songs and songs of praise for Hezbollah. Huge banners along the airport highway welcomed the freed men and denounced Israel as "the ultimate evil."
The freed prisoners included 21 Lebanese, Hezbollah's television station, Al Manar, reported. One Lebanese wanted by authorities in Beirut decided to stay in Israel, while another Lebanese wanted in Beirut stayed in Germany to seek political asylum. Some of those freed have been imprisoned for more than 13 years, seized by Israel when southern Lebanon was under Israeli occupation.
Besides the Lebanese and the Palestinians, seven other Arabs were freed and went to a Beirut hotel, Hezbollah officials said.
Also freed Thursday was a German convicted of spying for Hezbollah. He stayed in Germany.
Since Israel's founding in 1948, Israel has participated in several dozen prisoner exchanges with its Arab neighbors.