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Looking dazed, a thin and pale Gilad Shalit 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 Shalit struggled to breathe in an interview with Egyptian TV minutes after his release, 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 Shalit is with us."
In the first public sighting of Shalit 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, Shalit 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.
Freed in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, an ashen-faced Shalit struggled to breathe in an interview with Egyptian TV minutes after his release, saying that he had feared he would remain in captivity for “many more years.”
The Palestinian prisoners, who included dozens of people who had been serving life sentences for deadly attacks, were returning to heroes' welcomes, while dozens of people prepared a joyous homecoming in Shalit's tiny hometown in northern Israel.
"Until we see him, we are following with concern and anticipation," Shalit's father, Noam, told Israel Radio from an air base inside Israel where his family was waiting to reunite with him.
The swap got under way early Tuesday as Hamas moved Shalit 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.
Hamas' Al-Aqsa TV reported that a high-level Hamas delegation arrived on the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing with Gaza to hand over Shalit and to greet the returning prisoners.
In an elaborate operation, Shalit 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 Shalit'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 Shalit said: "Yes." Noam Shalit 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.
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 Shalit. 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."
Some of the relatives raised Palestinian flags or the green banners of Hamas. A group of young men chanted, "We will continue our struggle."
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 Shalit 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 Shalit'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.
Shalit 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 Shalit 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 Shalits' 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 Shalit's image and waved Israeli flags. A loud cheer erupted when the video of Shalit 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.
This program aired on October 18, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.
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