Hamas militants release captured Israeli soldier

Associated Press

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Looking dazed, a thin and pale Gilad Schalit emerged from a pickup truck Tuesday under the escort of his Hamas captors and the Egyptian mediators who helped arrange the Israeli tank crewman's release after more than five years in captivity.

Freed in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, an ashen-faced Schalit struggled to breathe in an interview with Egyptian TV minutes after his release on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza, saying that he had feared he would remain in captivity for "many more years." He said he was "very excited" to be headed home and that he missed his family and friends.

A short while later, the 25-year-old soldier was transferred to Israel, said Israeli army spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, who told a news conference: "Today, Gilad Schalit is with us."

In the first public sighting of Schalit since he was captured, he appeared thin with dark circles around his eyes in the brief video clip and interview broadcast on Egyptian TV. Wearing a black baseball cap and gray shirt, Schalit was taken from a pickup truck and escorted by a contingent of Egyptian officials and masked Hamas gunmen who had whisked him across the border.

The deal, the most lopsided prisoner swap in Israeli history, caps a five-and-a-half-year saga that has seen multiple Israeli military offensives in Gaza, an Israeli blockade on the territory and numerous rounds of failed negotiations.

The Palestinian prisoners, who included dozens of people who had been serving life sentences for deadly attacks, were returning to heroes' welcomes.

Preparations for a mass rally to greet the prisoners were in high gear in a large field in Gaza City. Hamas organizers set up neat rows of thousands of plastic chairs and erected a large stage that can hold hundreds of people. The stage was decorated with a huge mural depicting the capture of Schalit. Hamas orderlies handed out sandwiches and soft drinks to people arriving.

Armed Hamas security guards were deployed on rooftops overlooking the field.

In the West Bank, located on the opposite side of Israel, about 200 relatives of prisoners waited at a West Bank checkpoint as the exchange unfolded.

"We're so excited we can barely breathe," said Mariam Shkair, waiting for her brother, 52-year-old Abdel Latif, who spent 25 years in prison for killing an Israeli soldier. "We are waiting to hug him."

The Israeli military said Palestinians waiting for released prisoners at a West Bank checkpoint clashed with troops, who fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. There were no immediate reports of injuries.

In Schalit's tiny hometown in northern Israel, dozens of people prepared a joyous homecoming.

Schalit held an emotional phone conversation with his family from the military base in southern Israel where he was undergoing a medical exam. The military said the exam found Schalit to be in good condition.

The soldier is to be flown later to his family at an air base in central Israel.

"Until we see him, we are following with concern and anticipation," Schalit's father, Noam, told Israel Radio earlier from the air base inside Israel where his family was waiting to reunite with him.

The swap got under way early Tuesday as Hamas moved Schalit across Gaza's border with Egypt, while Israel simultaneously began freeing the Palestinian prisoners. At midmorning, Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader in Gaza, said his group was no longer holding the soldier.

In an elaborate operation, Schalit was then taken across Egypt's border into Israel and was being flown to the Tel Nof air base in central Israel to be reunited with his family.

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was at the air force base with Schalit's family, telling them "Gilad will be returning to you shortly," according to a statement from his office.

Asked in a brief TV appearance whether this was the happiest day of his life, Noam Schalit said: "Yes." Noam Schalit has become a ubiquitous figure in Israel since his son's capture and led a massive campaign to press the government into bringing the 25-year-old home.

Before dawn, convoys of white vans and trucks transported hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to the locations in the West Bank and on the Israel-Egypt border where they were to be freed.

The exchange, negotiated through Egyptian mediators because Israel and Hamas will not talk directly to each other, is going ahead despite criticism and court appeals in Israel against the release of the prisoners. Nearly 300 of them were serving lengthy sentences for involvement in deadly attacks.

The exchange involves a delicate series of staged releases, each one triggering the next. The Red Cross and Egyptian officials are involved in facilitating the movement of prisoners.

In Gaza, Hamas militants deployed in force along the road leading into Egypt where Schalit was taken. Shortly thereafter, hundreds of returning Palestinians were slated to enter Gaza on the same road.

When Tuesday's exchange is complete, 477 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, including 27 women, will have been released, several of them after decades behind bars.

More than 200 prisoners, originally from the West Bank, will instead be sent to the fenced-off Gaza Strip. And some 40 prisoners will be deported to Syria, Qatar, Turkey and Jordan, Palestinian officials said. Another 550 prisoners are slated to be released in two months.

Israel's Channel 10 TV said there was a delay at midmorning because two women were refusing to be sent to Gaza and instead asking to be sent to Egypt.

Little is known about Schalit's condition. Although he appeared healthy in the only time he has been seen in captivity — in a brief and scripted 2009 video released by Hamas — he was denied all visits, including by the Red Cross, and the state of his mental and physical health is unclear.

Schalit will then be flown by helicopter to an air force base in central Israel, where he will meet his parents, as well as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the defense minister and military chief of staff.

An intense media campaign to free Schalit made him a national symbol in Israel, and all local radio and TV stations held special live broadcasts Tuesday, following every step of the exchange.

At the Schalits' hometown in Mitzpe Hila, an access road was guarded by police festooned with banners welcoming the soldier. At the entrance, dozens of youths wore white T-shirts with Schalit's image and waved Israeli flags. A loud cheer erupted when the video of Schalit was shown on Israeli TV.

Israel and Hamas have held numerous rounds of talks through German and Egyptian mediators. But officials on both sides have said that conditions prompted in part by the recent Egyptian revolution helped drive them to an agreement. Both sides have been eager to have good ties with the new Egyptian leadership, which brokered the deal.

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