16 July 2008

* Operation Redwan today

Lebanon observes total shutdown on Wednesday to welcome Lebanese prisoners slated to be freed by Israel.
A statement issued by Prime Minister Fouad Saniora said the shutdown includes government offices, shops, businesses, banks as well as municipalities and educational institutions.

Hizbullah and Israel were to carry out a prisoner exchange on Wednesday, two years after a devastating war sparked by the capture of two soldiers who could return home in coffins.

While the mood in Israel was somber, with a tense wait to discover the fate of its soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, included in the swap, Hizbullah has prepared a hero's welcome for its fighters.

Celebratory banners and flags have been hoisted the length of the main coastal highway from the border with Israel at Naqoura to Lebanon's southern port city of Sidon.

Among those being exchanged is Samir Qantar, a Lebanese Druze who with five life terms for murder became the longest-serving Arab prisoner in Israel.

Four Hizbullah fighters captured in the July-August 2006 war which killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon and 160 in Israel -- Khaled Zidan, Maher Kurani, Mohammed Srour and Hussein Suleiman -- were also to walk free.

The exchange was to take place at the Naqoura-Rosh Hanikra crossing at around 0600 GMT after DNA tests are carried out to confirm the identities of the two soldiers before the swap goes ahead.

In return for its two soldiers, the Jewish state was also to transfer to Lebanon the remains of 199 Palestinian and Hizbullah fighters, exhumed over the past week.

On Tuesday, Hizbullah's commander in south Lebanon, Sheik Nabil Kaouk, called the swap an "official admission of defeat" for Israel.
Hizbullah supporters have set up a makeshift stage in Naqoura, where a brief ceremony will be held. An official ceremony will follow at Beirut Airport and will be attended by President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Fouad Saniora and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri.

The U.N.-brokered swap is the eighth between Israel and Hizbullah since 1991.

Israel's Jerusalem Post newspaper has billed the festivities in Lebanon, where the released men were to be flown to Beirut to be greeted by Suleiman and Saniora, as "a celebration of evil."

The International Red Cross -- using trucks ferried in from Jordan -- was organizing the exchange, after an accord sealed by a U.N.-appointed German mediator, Gerhard Konrad, following months of tough negotiations.

Hizbullah, which is backed by Tehran and Damascus, has never disclosed the fate of Goldwasser and Regev, although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said they are dead.

The families of Goldwasser and Regev will not be present at the border post of Rosh Hanikra on the Israeli side when the swap takes place.

Instead, army officials will inform the families on the soldiers' fate, as the army prepares for military funerals on Thursday in their home villages if their deaths are confirmed.

The daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, said one of the two Israelis was definitely killed during his capture in a cross-border raid on July 12, 2006 but the condition of his comrade was uncertain.

Israel's cabinet gave the final go-ahead on Tuesday for the prisoner swap.

President Shimon Peres later the same day pardoned the five Lebanese, saying it was "not a happy day for having to free such murderers but we have a moral responsibility to bring our soldiers home."

The cabinet first approved the swap deal in June, but was asked to endorse it again after Israel received a Hizbullah report on missing airman Ron Arad.

Arad has been missing since his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 during that country's civil war, and although the report said he was probably dead, Israel has rejected its findings.

Hizbullah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah was to give a speech in Beirut's Shiite southern suburbs later on Wednesday to hail his group's success in emptying Israeli jails of Lebanese prisoners.


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Lebanon Time-Line

Introducing Lebanon

Coolly combining the ancient with the ultramodern, Lebanon is one of the most captivating countries in the Middle East. From the Phoenician findings of Tyre (Sour) and Roman Baalbek's tremendous temple to Beirut's BO18 and Bernard Khoury's modern movement, the span of Lebanon's history leaves many visitors spinning. Tripoli (Trablous) is considered to have the best souk in the country and is famous for its Mamluk architecture. It's well equipped with a taste of modernity as well; Jounieh, formerly a sleepy fishing village, is a town alive with nightclubs and glitz on summer weekends.

With all of the Middle East's best bits - warm and welcoming people, mind-blowing history and considerable culture, Lebanon is also the antithesis of many people's imaginings of the Middle East: mostly mountainous with skiing to boot, it's also laid-back, liberal and fun. While Beirut is fast becoming the region's party place, Lebanon is working hard to recapture its crown as the 'Paris of the Orient'.

The rejuvenation of the Beirut Central District is one of the largest, most ambitious urban redevelopment projects ever undertaken. Travellers will find the excitement surrounding this and other developments and designs palpable - and very infectious.

Finally, Lebanon's cuisine is considered the richest of the region. From hummus to hommard (lobster), you'll dine like a king. With legendary sights, hospitality, food and nightlife, what more could a traveller want?

Introducing Beirut

What Beirut is depends entirely on where you are. If you’re gazing at the beautifully reconstructed colonial relics and mosques of central Beirut’s Downtown, the city is a triumph of rejuvenation over disaster.

If you’re in the young, vibrant neighbourhoods of Gemmayzeh or Achrafiye, Beirut is about living for the moment: partying, eating and drinking as if there’s no tomorrow. If you’re standing in the shadow of buildings still peppered with bullet holes, or walking the Green Line with an elderly resident, it’s a city of bitter memories and a dark past. If you’re with Beirut’s Armenians, Beirut is about salvation; if you’re with its handful of Jews, it’s about hiding your true identity. Here you’ll find the freest gay scene in the Arab Middle East, yet homosexuality is still illegal. If you’re in one of Beirut’s southern refugee camps, Beirut is about sorrow and displacement; other southern districts are considered a base for paramilitary operations and south Beirut is home to infamous Hezbollah secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah. For some, it’s a city of fear; for others, freedom.

Throw in maniacal drivers, air pollution from old, smoking Mercedes taxis, world-class universities, bars to rival Soho and coffee thicker than mud, political demonstrations, and swimming pools awash with more silicone than Miami. Add people so friendly you’ll swear it can’t be true, a political situation existing on a knife-edge, internationally renowned museums and gallery openings that continue in the face of explosions, assassinations and power cuts, and you’ll find that you’ve never experienced a capital city quite so alive and kicking – despite its frequent volatility.