Israeli soldier freed in swap for Palestinians

Released Sgt. Gilad Schalit (second from right) walks with his father, Noam (right), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second from left) and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (left) at the Tel Nof Air Base in southern Israel on Oct. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Israeli Defense Ministry)Released Sgt. Gilad Schalit (second from right) walks with his father, Noam (right), Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second from left) and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (left) at the Tel Nof Air Base in southern Israel on Oct. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Israeli Defense Ministry)
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TEL NOF AIR BASE, Israel (AP) — Looking thin, weary and dazed, Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit emerged from more than five years in Hamas captivity on Tuesday, surrounded by Gaza militants with black face masks and green headbands who handed him over to Egyptian mediators in an exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. After a medical examination, Israeli officials said Sgt. Schalit showed signs of malnutrition.

More than 450 Palestinians were transferred from Israeli prisons to the West Bank and Gaza, where massive celebratory rallies festooned with green Hamas flags were held. In Gaza City, tens of thousands crammed into an open lot where a huge stage was set up, decorated with a mural depicting Gt. Schalit’s capture in a June 2006 raid on an army base near the Gaza border. The crowd exhorted militants to seize more soldiers for future swaps.

The rest of the prisoners — about 550 more — are to be released in a second phase in two months.

Before he was flown to an Israel air base where he reunited with his parents, Sgt. Schalit spoke to Egyptian TV in an interview that Israeli officials later called “shocking.” The gaunt, sallow and uncomfortable looking Sgt. Schalit appeared to struggle to speak at times, and his breathing was noticeably labored as he awkwardly answered questions.

Still, he said he felt good and was “very excited” to be going free. But the circumstances of his release, along with the awkward TV interview, raised questions about the conditions the 25-year-old had endured.

In this image from Egypt TV on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2011, Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit is seen at an undisclosed location in the Gaza-Egypt border area accompanied by Hamas guards as he is moved into Egypt from captivity in Gaza, beginning an elaborate prisoner swap deal in which hundreds of Palestinian inmates are to be freed in return for the captured tank crewman. (AP Photo/ Egypt TV)

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After a tumultuous day that included a reception with the prime minister and an emotional reunion with his family, Sgt. Schalit touched down in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila in northern Israel late Tuesday on board a military helicopter.

Thousands of people jammed the streets and stood on rooftops to celebrate Sgt. Schalit’s return. The ecstatic crowd sang songs, waved Israeli flags, popped champagne bottles, embraced and cheered him on. A smiling Sgt. Schalit briefly waved to the crowd before ducking into his family’s house. Police blocked access to the street to give the family privacy.

Sgt. Schalit, who had not been seen in public since his capture, was whisked across Gaza’s border into Egypt early in the morning by armed Hamas militants in an SUV, setting the swap into motion.

Wearing a black baseball hat and gray shirt, he was seen for the first time emerging from a pickup truck and turned over to Egyptian mediators by a gang of top Hamas militants, some with their faces covered in black masks with the green headband of the Qassam brigades, Hamas‘ military wing. Among those around Sgt. Schalit in those first moments was Ahmed Jabari, the shadowy head of Hamas‘ militant wing, one of Israel‘s most wanted militants.

Sgt. Schalit, still escorted by Hamas gunmen, then was taken to a border crossing, where an Egyptian TV crew waited to interview him before he finally was sent into Israel.

Stumbling over his words, he spoke in the interview of missing his family and friends, said he feared he would remain in captivity “many more years” and worried that the deal might fall through after learning about it last week.

“Of course I missed my family. I missed friends, meeting people to talk to people, and not to sit all day, to do the same things,” he said.

In one picture taken of the interview, a Hamas gunman with black face mask and green headband could be seen lurking in the background.

Israeli officials reacted angrily to the interview, saying it was inappropriate to force Sgt. Schalit to answer questions in such difficult circumstances. But the interviewer, Shahira Amin, said he had not been coerced.

Later, video released by the Israeli military showed the weak Sgt. Schalit being helped into an army jeep after crossing the border into Israel, and walking gingerly down some steps as he exited a military caravan after changing into a fresh army uniform. Military officials said a physical exam had found him to be in “good” condition, though he showed signs of malnutrition and lack of exposure to the sun.

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