BEIRUT: The bodies of the three Lebanese nationals killed in Istanbul's mass New Year’s Eve shooting arrived in Beirut Monday as anguished family members waited to say their final goodbyes.
Lebanon's Middle East Airlines flew the bodies of Elias Wardini, Rita Shami and Haykal Mousallem back to Beirut, along with five of the six Lebanese nationals who were wounded in the attack.
Hospital beds were fitted on the plane under the supervision of Lebanese doctors to avoid any further injury to the wounded before ambulances transferred them to the aircraft.
After a delayed departure from Istanbul, the plane arrived in Beirut at around 8:30 p.m.
Lebanese Red Cross ambulances and paramedics deployed at the airport to assist in offloading the bodies and disembarking the wounded.
Early Sunday, an assailant opened fire at the crowded nightclub during New Year's celebrations, killing at least 39 people and wounding dozens.
ISIS Monday claimed responsibility for the attack.
Turkish police are still tracking down the gunman who attacked revelers at the popular Istanbul nightclub.
The daughter of MP Estephan Dweihi, Bushra Dweihi, will remain in hospital in Istanbul until her condition improves.
The five other wounded victims – Nidal Bsherrawi, Francois Asmar, Nasser Beshara, Melissa Papalordu and Jihad Abdul Khalek – returned home on the MEA flight.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who was at the airport when the bodies arrived, vowed that Lebanon would "fight terrorism with all [its] strength."
"I offer my condolences to the families of the victims on my behalf and in the name of President Michel Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri," Hariri told reporters as he arrived at the airport to oversee the repatriation.
"The world is with the families of the victims today. We stand by their side," Hariri said.
Hariri assured that the Lebanese officials were following up with the Turkish government to ensure that the assailant is brought to justice.
"Terrorism has no religion. It targets us all," Hariri said. "We will fight terrorism with all our strength."
A delegation headed by Secretary-General of the Higher Relief Committee Maj. Gen. Mohammad Khair and chief of Protocol at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants in Lebanon, Mira Daher, visited the wounded at Istanbul hospitals earlier Monday.
Bsherrawi told local MTV channel that panic erupted after gunshots were heard at the club. "We started running everywhere and got scattered. It was horrifying."
President Aoun followed up on the situation with Hariri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.
Aoun was also briefed on the work carried out by the Lebanese delegation in Istanbul and the measures being taken to repatriate the bodies and return the wounded and their families back to Beirut. He urged authorities to facilitate the process.
Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk attended a meeting of senior security officials in Beirut Airport to prepare for the repatriation.
Following the meeting, Machnouk said a team of volunteers would be in charge of transporting the wounded and the bodies of the victims to destinations specified by their families.
Francois Asmar and Nasser Beshara will be taken to the American University Hospital, while Nidal Bsherrawi will head to Rizk Hospital in Beirut.
Melissa Papalordu's family chose to take her to Saint George Hospital in Ashrafieh.
As for Jihad Abdul Khalek, he will not be hospitalized as his condition is currently stable.
The bodies that were offloaded from the aircraft – each wrapped in the Lebanese flag – will be taken to Hotel Dieu De France Hospital in Ashrafieh, as it is close to the victims' homes.
The Maronite patriarch delegated Beirut Bishop Boulos Matar to hold prayers for the slain victims.
Several ministers began arriving to the Rafik Hariri International airport at around 7 p.m. to take part in the reception ceremony.
"The victims mean a lot to us; they are martyrs just like our martyred servicemen who died fighting terrorism," Public Works and Transport Minister Youssef Fenianos told Al-Jadeed TV as he arrived.
Environment Minister Tarek Khatib and State Minister for Combatting Corruption Nicolas Tueni arrived soon afterward.
"We offer our condolences to the families of the victims," Tueni said.
"This shows the strength of the Lebanese people," he added.
Tueni also urged the Lebanese to spend their holidays in Lebanon, saying it is safer than other neighboring countries.
Minister of State for Planning Michel Pharaon arrived to the airport with Hariri to offer condolences to the families of the victims.
Hariri, Machnouk, Bassil, Pharaon, Fenianos and Tueni lined up along with security and religious figures to receive the victims.
Hariri and the accompanying officials later proceeded to the aircraft and offered condolences to the families of the three victims killed in the attack.
Hariri boarded the aircraft to greet the wounded victims.
The family of Haikal Mousallem, who died in the attack, held a commemoration service in Baabda, east of Beirut, where dozens offered their condolences.
Nearly two-thirds of the people killed were foreigners, many from the Middle East.
Around 600 people were thought to be inside when the gunman shot dead a policeman and civilian at the door, forcing his way in, and then opening fire with an automatic assault rifle. Witnesses said he shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest).
Some at the club jumped into the Bosphorus after the attacker began shooting at random just over an hour into the New Year. Witnesses described diving under tables as he walked around spraying bullets.