BEIRUT – Five militants who were freed as part of a prisoner swap with Israel prayed Thursday at a slain Hezbollah military commander's grave, pledging to follow in his footsteps and continue fighting Israel.
Wearing military fatigues, the five men walked down a red carpet laid out for them outside Imad Mughniyeh's burial spot at a cemetery south of Beirut.
They laid wreaths and gave a military salute as supporters showered them with rice.
Mughniyeh, a shadowy figure who Israel and the West accused of masterminding terrorist bombings in the 1980s and 1990s, was killed in a car bomb in neighboring Syria in February.
Hezbollah and its supporters regard him as a hero of almost mythical stature. The militant group dubbed Wednesday's prisoner exchange "Operation Radwan" in reference to Mughniyeh's nom de guerre, Hajj Radwan.
"We swear by God ... to continue on your same path and not to retreat until we achieve the same stature that God bestowed on you," said Samir Kantar, who had been the longest-held Lebanese prisoner in Israel. He had been convicted of murder in a 1979 attack that left an Israeli policeman, a father and his two children dead.
Kantar referred to Mughniyeh's "martyrdom," saying, "This is our great wish. We envy you and we will achieve it, God willing."
A member of the Druse minority sect, Kantar and four Shiite Muslim guerrillas were freed in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah at the onset of the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.
The exchange was mediated over the past 18 months by a U.N.-appointed German official.
Later in the day, hundreds of people welcomed Kantar in his hometown of Abey, a mountain hamlet 10 miles south of Beirut.
"This time yesterday I was in the hands of the enemy (Israelis). But at this moment, I am yearning more than before to confront them," Kantar said. Hezbollah's weapons are "a red line" that no one should be allowed to cross, he told reporters.
Israel also returned to Lebanon the bodies of nearly 200 Lebanese and Palestinian fighters who were killed fighting Israel over the past three decades.
Eight tractor-trailers loaded with coffins carrying their remains were driven Thursday from south Lebanon to Beirut. The convoy was stopped often along the way by throngs of supporters in the port cities of Tyre and Sidon, as well as in other towns.
At least 10 people, including four news photographers, were slightly injured, some with fractures, when a makeshift wooden platform in Sidon collapsed, security officials said. The structure had been set up as a viewing stand for onlookers as the convoy rolled by.
Villagers showered the coffins with rice and rose petals. The coffins were wrapped in Lebanese and Hezbollah flags and covered with wreaths. A banner on one of the trucks read, "The Martyrs of Victory."
Also Thursday, many Lebanese complained they were receiving recorded phone messages from Israel promising "harsh retaliation" to any future Hezbollah attack. The automated messages also warn against allowing Hezbollah to form "a state within a state" in Lebanon.
The speaker ends the phone messages with the words: "The State of Israel."
There was no immediate confirmation from Israel, though similar reports surfaced of Israeli phone campaigns during the 2006 war.
Israel has never confirmed involvement in such calls, but it is known to use a variety of propaganda and psychological techniques to try to reach Lebanese residents and persuade them not to support Hezbollah.
Lebanon's official National News Agency said residents in south and eastern Lebanon as well as the capital Beirut reporting receiving the calls. It said Telecommunications Minister Jibran Bassil contacted the United Nations to complain, calling it a "flagrant aggression against Lebanese sovereignty."