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Hundreds of thousands rally to celebrate prisoner release

Oct. 18, 2011 12:33 A.M. (Updated: Oct. 19, 2011 9:45 A.M.)
RAMALLAH (Ma'an) -- Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Ramallah and Gaza City on Tuesday in celebration of the release of hundreds of prisoners from Israeli jails.

More than 200,000 people rallied at al-Katiba square in Gaza City, a Hamas official involved in organizing the welcome rally said.

Israel freed 477 prisoners, most of them to the Gaza Strip, where Hamas leaders greeted former prisoners piling off buses bearing Red Cross insignia.

"We are going home with dignity, thank God," one prisoner told Egyptian television from the bus.

Three cars belonging to the ruling Hamas movement followed by a Red Cross vehicle accompanied a convoy of eight buses carrying the prisoners to their waiting relatives in the southern Gaza Strip city of Rafah.

Hamas militants paraded through the streets of Gaza City celebrating the triumphant release, negotiated by the Islamist movement with Israel in exchange for soldier Gilad Shalit.

A huge stage has been erected in al-Katiba square and Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and released prisoner Yahwa Sinwar are scheduled to speak at the celebrations. Sources close to Hamas on Monday told Ma'an a third speaker would be a surprise addition to the agenda.

Hundreds of released prisoners will sit on the stage and break the walls of a symbolic jail built on the platform, officials said.

In the West Bank, classes were suspended so pupils could join sit-in tents and activities organized to welcome returning detainees, teachers' union chief Muhammad Suwwan told Ma'an.

President Mahmoud Abbas addressed huge crowds at his compound as buses headed to Ramallah carrying the first prisoners released under the historic swap deal.

"We thank God that you returned safe and sound to your families, your brothers, and your homeland after this forced disappearance because you struggled for your homeland," the president said.

"We pray that God enables us to see the rest of our sisters and brothers freed in this yard. Your sacrifices, and efforts and work were not in vain. You worked and struggled and sacrificed. You will see the results of your sacrifices in the independent Palestinian state.

"Brothers and sisters, your cause was and is still in our heart and minds. Our main worry was our brothers and sister in jails."

Abbas referred to charismatic Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine secretary-general Ahmad Sadaat, two high profile prisoners who were left out of the deal.

"We will see, God willing, very soon, our brother Marwan Barghouthi and Ahmad Saadat whom we wish a quick recovery."

Abbas thanked Egypt for its help in brokering the agreement, and promised to finalize reconciliation between his Fatah party and Hamas.

"Brothers and sisters, your families in homeland and in the world are with you everywhere. But I would like to tell you that all the merits, after God, are to our martyrs."
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