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Israel frees 550 Palestinians completing prisoner swap

Dec. 18, 2011 11:29 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 21, 2011 11:58 A.M.)
RAMALLAH/GAZA (Reuters) -- Israel released 550 Palestinian prisoners on Sunday in the second stage of a deal with Hamas in exchange for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

While many of the 450 prisoners freed on Oct. 18 in the first phase of the Egyptian-brokered prisoner swap were serving life sentences for deadly attacks, none in the second group was convicted of killings.

Nearly all of the prisoners passed through a crossing into the West Bank and were greeted by thousands of Palestinians who danced and cheered in the city of Ramallah.

Though Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, had reached the deal with Israel, most of the crowd waved flags from the rival Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas, the dominant party in the West Bank.

In Gaza, two buses with 41 prisoners, escorted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, passed through the Rafah crossing and were met by hundreds of relatives waving flags representing the different Palestinian factions.

"My feelings of joy are mixed with sorrow because we left behind beloved brothers, we hope all of them will be freed," said Samer Aweidat, who was released after serving four years of a six-year sentence for weapons possession and being a member of a militant group.

Israel's Supreme Court opened the way for Sunday's release to go ahead by turning down a petition on Friday from Israelis opposed to freeing the prisoners, whose terms ranged from a few months to 18 years.

They were convicted of crimes that included attempted murder, planting bombs and membership of militant groups.

Shalit was abducted in June 2006 by militants who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and surprised his tank crew, killing two of his comrades. He was held incommunicado in the Hamas-ruled territory and a huge majority of Israelis backed the deal that brought him home two months ago.

Hani Habib, a political analyst in Gaza, said that Israel, given the opportunity to pick which prisoners would be freed in the second stage, chose inmates from Fatah rather than Hamas.

"Israel was interested in turning the victory that has been achieved into a Palestinian discomfort and a Palestinian division with its discrimination," he said.

Hamas said it would petition Egypt to pressure Israel into freeing all the Palestinian women in its jails, something it had wanted to happen in Sunday's release.

Six women were among the released detainees, of 11 in Israeli jails, Riyad al-Ashqar, media director in Gaza's Ministry of Prisoners, said earlier.

Israel also freed 55 under-18s out of 164 Palestinian children in Israeli jails, according to recent figures from the UN agency UNICEF.

Ashqar said 506 detainees leaving jail are from the West Bank, 40 are from Gaza, two are from Jerusalem, as well as two Jordanian nationals.
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