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Israeli Soldier, 477 Palestinians Freed in Prisoner Swap

  • Scott Bobb

An Israeli soldier held more than five years by Palestinian captors has returned home, and Israel has freed more than 400 Palestinians, in one of the largest prisoner swaps between the two sides.

Israeli army Sergeant Gilad Shalit returned to his family in Israel amid an outpouring of national joy, as 477 Palestinian prisoners, 27 of them women, regained their freedom amid celebrations across the Palestinian territories.

The spokesman for the Israeli military General Yoav Mordechai, announced Shalit's release shortly after midday on Tuesday. He said Gilad Shalit has returned home, back from the military operation he left for on June 25, 2006.

That is the day Shalit was captured by forces of the Hamas Palestinian group during a clash in southern Israel.

In subsequent years, there were intensive diplomatic efforts to gain the soldier's release, along with flare-ups of fighting that inflicted considerable damage on Palestinian installations in Hamas-ruled Gaza.

Hamas transferred Shalit to Egypt Tuesday morning under a deal mediated by the Egyptian government. Egyptian authorities quickly handed him over to the Israelis.

Shalit told Egypt's Nile TV that he had been informed of his impending release about one week ago.

He says he missed his family and missed talking to people. He says he was afraid he would be a prisoner for years to come.

In the Palestinian territories, the mood was jubilant as hundreds of prisoners, including some who had been jailed by Israel for decades, regained their freedom in the swap and rejoined their families.

But some released Palestinians were not able to go home. Dozens who were from the West Bank were instead deported to Gaza or elsewhere. One of them, Halal Jarad, told al-Jazeera TV he is sad he will not see his family but that he would seek to live a normal life.

"I plan to open a house and marry. And I look for peace. It's very difficult in the war. It's very ugly from all the conditions," said Jarad.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the prisoner release.

Abbas said there is an agreement with the Israeli government for the release of another larger group of Palestinians soon. "We are asking the Israelis to respect their promises," said Abbas.

Under the deal, Israel is to release an additional 550 Palestinian prisoners within two months. An estimated 6,000 Palestinians remain in Israeli jails. Hamas leaders have vowed to see them all released.

The deal was controversial. Families of some of the Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks were angry to see the attackers go free. Other Israelis feared the prisoner release would lead to an increase in violence.

Palestinians were upset that some of their most prominent figures in Israeli custody were excluded from the deal.