IDF hands over Hezbollah bodies in bid to 'create calm'
Military source says remains of militants killed this week were returned as confidence-building gesture.
Israel on Friday transferred the bodies of three Hezbollah militants killed by Israel Defense Forces fire in cross-border fighting this week. The handover took place via the Red Cross and a United Nations peace-keeping force at the Rosh Hanikra border crossing on the Lebanon border.
"The three bodies of the Hezbollah terrorists killed when they attacked Israel have been returned to Lebanon following the Lebanese government's urgent request to do so," the IDF said in a statement.
"The bodies were returned as a confidence-building gesture to create calm along the Israel-Lebanon border," an IDF source said.
Hezbollah men clad in black uniforms stood in attention on both sides of a stretch of road about one kilometer away in salute as the militant group's yellow flags fluttered.
The move comes after Israel announced on Thursday evening it would accede to Lebanon's requests and return the bodies. The four gunmen died during a Hezbollah raid on Monday which Lebanese security sources said aimed, but failed, to seize Israeli soldiers who could be traded for Arabs jailed in Israel.
One of the dead was retrieved by the Lebanese but the rest remained on the Israeli side of Ghajar, a divided border town.
Security sources said they consider Lebanon's official request to be a positive development, and they hope it shows that the Lebanese government wishes to enforce its sovereignty in the country's south.
"We have not intentions to become body dealers," the sources said. "The request was genuine and we therefore decided to accede," they added.
On Thursday morning, Israel Radio quoted Radio Monte Carlo as saying that Israel had agreed to return the bodies of the three Hezbollah militants killed in the Monday clashes. According to the report, the two sides are holding negotiations on the matter, with the assistance of the Red Cross.
The Israel Defense Forces, however, subsequently denied that Israel had agreed to return the bodies of the Hezbollah men.
Lebanese security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said the UN peacekeeping force on the border had been contacted about the demand for the bodies' return. UNIFIL officials had no immediate comment.
Earlier on Thursday Lebanon demanded that Israel return the three bodies.
"What is required is the handover of the bodies of the resistance fighters who fell as martyrs during the latest confrontations in order to defuse the tension on Lebanon's international border," Prime Minister Fuad Saniora told reporters during a visit to Qatar on Wednesday.
A Lebanese Cabinet minister close to Hezbollah reiterated the demand Thursday, warning Israel that unless the bodies were returned, the militant group might try to kidnap Israelis to trade them for the bodies.
"They must be handed over in order to avoid an escalation," Health Minister Mohammed Jawad Khalife of the Amal party told Voice of Lebanon radio. "It is known that the resistance will try to secure the return of the bodies one way or another, and this usually ends up in negotiations to trade them for the bodies of Israeli soldiers or for prisoners."
Tensions had been ratcheted up further on Wednesday when an Israeli civilian paraglider pilot was blown across the border by strong winds. The pro-Syrian Hezbollah and Israeli troops exchanged fire as he dashed back to safety. There were no casualties.
The Lebanese Cabinet was expected to discuss this week's border clashes at its meeting scheduled for later Thursday.
Security Council condemns Hezbollah The United Nations Security Council issued an unprecedented condemnation of Hezbollah on Wednesday night after an attack Monday that wounded 11 Israelis and caused damage to property.
Following pressure from Israel and the United States, the Council - which has never before reprimanded the Iranian- backed group - expressed "deep concern" over Hezbollah's "acts of hatred." It also urged the Lebanese government to impose order in southern Lebanon and prevent Hezbollah from operating there.
According to the UPI news agency, the statement, proposed by the U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, said the clashes "were initiated by Hezbollah from the Lebanese side, and which quickly spread along the entire Blue Line." It also expressed regret at the casualties on both sides.