Gilad Shalit freed in Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap

Gilad Shalit says he missed his family while in captivity and has much to do now he is free

Cheering crowds have greeted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit as he arrived back in his northern hometown of Mitzpe Hila after five years in captivity in Gaza.

Sgt Shalit was flown by helicopter from an airbase in central Israel after undergoing medical tests.

He was freed after Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas agreed a deal under which more than 1,000 Palestinians would also be released.

Many thousands thronged the streets of Gaza to greet the former prisoners.

Israel freed 477 Palestinians on Tuesday, including people convicted of murder and of planning suicide attacks.

Another 550 jailed Palestinians are to be freed next month under the deal.

Sgt Shalit, 25, was seized in 2006 by Hamas militants who tunnelled into Israel.

At the scene

For Israel this has been a day of great joy, but also of concern for the consequences of releasing of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners as the price for ending Gilad Shalit's long years of captivity in the Gaza Strip.

Sgt Shalit himself does appear to be in better health than many had expected. Although pale and weak, after being locked inside for more than five years, his father said he did feel alright.

The people in his hometown here in northern Israel lined the streets to welcome him home, showering the convoy of vehicles with flowers and champagne. But so far he has not come out to meet people. His father said it was too early; he needs a period of rehabilitation to adjust to normal life.

Early on Tuesday he was taken to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt, and handed over to Egyptian mediators by Hamas, in the presence of Israeli representatives.

In his first interview, Sgt Shalit told Egyptian TV he missed his friends and family. Looking drawn and pale, he said he hoped the exchange would help bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Sgt Shalit was later taken to Tel Nof airbase, where he met his family, and was passed fit by Israeli army doctors. They were all flown by helicopter back to Mitzpe Hila.

At a news conference, Noam Shalit said his son had been kept in harsh conditions by his captors initially, but his treatment had got better over the years.

He said Sgt Shalit was suffering from some minor injuries including untreated shrapnel wounds and complications because of a lack of sunlight in the place where he was held.

"We are concluding a long and difficult journey. We're glad that we won our son back," said Mr Shalit.

At Tel Nof Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted the family and said the release was an "exciting moment" but also very difficult as the price - the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners - had been very high.

Mr Netanyahu added: "I want to make it clear: we will continue fighting terrorism."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was pleased that Sgt Shalit's "long ordeal" had ended, adding that he had been held for "far too long".

Meanwhile, former Palestinian prisoners have been arriving back in Gaza and the West Bank.

The BBC's Jon Donnison speaks to one of the freed Palestinian prisoners

An estimated 200,000 people gathered in Gaza City to welcome them.

The former prisoners returning to Gaza first crossed by bus into Egypt from Kerem Shalom, before being met at the Rafah crossing by relatives and friends, as well as Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya.

Early on Tuesday, they had left a prison in the south of Israel, while a smaller group left another prison in the centre of the country - both under heavy security.

However, a number of senior Palestinian prisoners have been left out of the deal - which was brokered by Egypt.

Freedom fighters?

The BBC's Jon Donnison in Gaza City says there are thousands of gun-toting masked Hamas militants, clad in black and green, patrolling the streets.

Hamas wants a show of force, but many believe they have now played their trump card by handing over Sgt Shalit, our correspondent says.

About 40 of the Palestinians released on Tuesday will be flown to host countries including Turkey, Syria or Qatar.

Map

Other prisoners have been taken to the West Bank, where they were met by Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas.

Addressing a cheering crowd in Ramallah, Mr Abbas praised the former detainees as "freedom fighters" and said more Palestinian prisoners would eventually be freed.

Sgt Shalit was a 19-year-old tank crewman when he was captured in June 2006. His family lived in a protest tent in Jerusalem for 16 months while they campaigned for his release.

BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen says Israelis who send their children to the country's conscript army have identified strongly with the Shalit family's pain.

However, our correspondent adds, Israel has paid a high price for Sgt Shalit's freedom.

Many of the Palestinians being released were serving life for killing Israelis with bombs and bullets.

Mr Netanyahu wrote a letter, released by his office, to bereaved Israeli families telling them: "I understand the difficulty in accepting that the vile people who committed the heinous crimes against your loved ones will not pay the full price they deserve."

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