Gilad Shalit march in Israel attracts thousands

Image caption,
Friday, the fifth day of the protest march, drew one of the largest crowds yet

Twenty thousand people have joined a march through Israel calling for the release of captured soldier Gilad Shalit, organisers say.

Sgt Shalit was captured by Palestinian gunmen four years ago.

The demonstrators are halfway through their 12-day march across the country, which will end outside the home of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr Netanyahu has offered to free 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, but not pay "any price" to the soldier's Hamas captors.

Image caption,
Mr Netanyahu made a live address to the nation

Mr Netanyahu made the announcement in a bid to ease mounting pressure from the Israeli public for a prisoner swap.

But the move may have backfired, as 20,000 people joined the march on Friday, organisers said.

"It could be that the prime minister's statement affected people and made them decide to take part," Shimshon Liebman, the head of the free Shalit campaign, told the AFP news agency.

Sgt Shalit's parents and supporters are marching to Jerusalem, where they plan to camp outside Mr Netanyahu's official residence. They have vowed not to return home without their son, who is now 23.

He was taken captive four years ago during a cross-border raid by militants from the Gaza Strip.

Noam Shalit, the soldier's father, has criticised Mr Netanyahu's speech.

"We regret that after four years, in which Gilad has been rotting in the dark basements of Hamas, all Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has managed to do is to recycle the press conference of his predecessor," he said in Rupin in northern Israel.

Talks on a prison swap deal between Israel and Hamas, via a German mediator, collapsed late last year.

The two sides failed to agree on a list of prisoners, as Hamas wants several people freed who Israel says have "blood on their hands".

They are also at odds about where the prisoners will be released. Israel wants to send released prisoners to the Gaza Strip, from which few Palestinians can travel, or have them deported from the region. Hamas wants those from the West Bank to return home.

In response to Mr Netanyahu's speech, Hamas said it had not received any new offer from Israel over Sgt Shalit.