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Gilad Shalit speaks to his family on the telephone in this handout released by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) October 18, 2011 (HO/Reuters)
Gilad Shalit speaks to his family on the telephone in this handout released by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) October 18, 2011 (HO/Reuters)

Hamas frees Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in prisoner swap Add to ...

Israeli soldier, Sergeant First Class Gilad Shalit returned to Israel Tuesday morning after more than five years captivity as a hostage in Gaza.

The 24-year-old was abducted on June 25, 2006, while serving as a private in a tank group patrolling the very area where he reentered Israel Tuesday.

“It’s closure,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Avital Leibovich, the IDF spokeswoman, a warm satisfied smile on her face.

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Looking dazed, a thin and pale Sgt. Shalit emerged from a pickup truck under the escort of his Hamas captors and the Egyptian mediators who helped arrange his release.

Israeli military officials later said that Sgt. Shalit showed signs of malnutrition and lack of sunlight.

An ashen-faced Sgt. 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 was transferred to Israel, said Israeli army spokesman Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, who told a news conference: “Today, Gilad Shalit is with us.”

In the first public sighting of Sgt. 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 grey shirt, Sgt. 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 intricate handover of Sgt. Shalit in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners proceeded slowly.

Most of the prisoners were gathered at two principal sites, to await Sgt. Shalit’s exit from Gaza.

He was transported first through the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt. He waited there, having a preliminary medical examination, while three convoys of buses carrying about 300 prisoners crossed through Kerem Shalom into Egypt.

The Globe and Mail's Patrick Martin tweets from the Kerem Shalom crossing

As soon as Sgt. Shalit was taken through the crossing into Israel, about half the prisoners were driven into Gaza. The other half are to be transported to Cairo from where they will travel into exile in various other states.

At the same time, about 150 prisoners left Ofer Prison north of Jerusalem and were being driven to the Palestinian city of Ramallah for an official reception welcoming them back to the West Bank.

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 Sgt. Shalit’s tiny hometown in northern Israel.

Sgt. Shalit held an emotional phone conversation with his family from the military base in southern Israel where he was undergoing a medical exam. The military said the exam found Sgt. Shalit to be in good condition.

The soldier is to be flown later to his family at an air base in central Israel.

“Until we see him, we are following with concern and anticipation,” Sgt. Shalit's father, Noam, told Israel Radio earlier from the air base inside Israel where his family was waiting to reunite with him.

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.”

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.

While all of Israel seems fully consumed with Sgt. Shalit’s return, the exchange is not without its controversy.

Many Israelis – polls indicate about 20 per cent – disapprove of the decision to commute the sentences of so many convicts, many serving multiple life sentences for participating in deadly terrorist acts.

A petition by victims’ families to the country’s high court seeking a halt to the release of some of the prisoners was rejected late Monday evening and the prisoners now are on buses awaiting their freedom.

With files from Associated Press

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