The final group of 119 Lebanese and Palestinian detainees held by Israel were freed Tuesday and received a heroes’ welcome when they rode into Lebanon’s southern port of Tyre.
They were among the more than 700 prisoners whose freedom was demanded by Shia Muslim gunmen who hijacked a TWA jetliner in June and held 39 Americans hostage for 16 days.
The Israeli action appeared to open the way for the possible release of at least some of the Westerners kidnaped by Muslim extremists in Beirut in the last 18 months.
Shia Muslim officials in Beirut said two Frenchmen kidnaped in Beirut nearly four months ago will be freed soon. But there was no word on 10 other missing Westerners--seven Americans, two Frenchmen and a Briton.
The last group of mostly Shia prisoners had been held for five months in Israel’s Atlit prison near the northern port of Haifa. In all, Israel had transferred 1,200 Lebanese to Atlit from Ansar prison in southern Lebanon in April as part of its withdrawal from a three-year occupation of Lebanon.
The transfer prompted protests from the United States and the International Committee of the Red Cross that Israel had violated rules of the Geneva Convention regarding the movement of detainees from their home country.
The prisoners freed Tuesday were driven in buses to the border checkpoint of Rosh Hanikrah, where they ran over the border into Lebanon, wearing Israeli-issued jogging outfits.
They were driven through the villages of southern Lebanon in a triumphant column. Residents tossed rice and rose water over their heads, and fellow Shias thrust weapons into their hands. Others fired into the air.
In Haifa, an Israeli army spokesman said the release “fulfills Israel’s pledge to release all prisoners as soon as security in south Lebanon permits.” An International Red Cross official, who declined to be identified by name, said, “Atlit is now empty.”
A spokesman for Amal, the Shia Muslim militia, said the release will mean freedom for Jean-Paul Kaufmann, a correspondent for the French weekly magazine L’Evenement de Jeudi, and Michel Seurat, a researcher at Beirut’s Institute for Middle East Affairs. They were kidnaped May 22 as they drove from Beirut airport.
Israel had already released almost 500 of the Lebanese prisoners when extremist Shia gunmen seized TWA Flight 847, later demanding that Israel set free all remaining Lebanese captives as a ransom for 39 American hostages.
Israel refused to bargain with the hijackers but continued periodic releases of the prisoners, detained for their alleged involvement in the guerrilla war against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Bernard Kalb said, “Israel has consistently said it would release the prisoners. We welcome their release.”