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Hamas releases 'proof of life' video of captured Israeli soldier in exchange for Tel Aviv's release of 20 female prisoners

A two-minute video of an Israeli soldier held captive by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas for the past three years shows him 'healthy and coherent', officials said today.

Recorded images of Gilad Shalit, 23, showed him holding a newspaper dated September 14, one Israeli official who saw the video said.

The video was handed over in exchange for Israel's release of 20 Palestinian women from its jails, including one who brought home a 20-month-old boy born in prison to a joyful reception in Gaza.

The swap with Hamas, brokered by German and Egyptian diplomacy, could be a step towards a larger prisoner exchange and the release of Mr Shalit, one of Israel's top priorities since he was captured in a June 2006 cross-border raid.

'The success of the resistance in achieving this deal heralds further success in achieving a further deal,' siad Osama Al-Muzaini, a senior Hamas official close to the negotiations.

'There is active movement, and there is an energetic German role and we hope to be close to achieving the deal that would please us all.'

Israel said that today's deal was a confidence-building gesture before crucial stages in the bid for Shalit's release, and added that lengthy and difficult negotiations were still ahead before any final swap.

Officials said the video was authenticated before 19 of the women were released. A copy was due to be viewed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the parents of the soldier before any decision to make it public.

It was handed over as a convoy of Red Cross jeeps carried 18 freed women prisoners over the Beitunya checkpoint into the West Bank.

The 19th prisoner was taken into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip with her baby, and the final prisoner is due to be released on Sunday.

All the women were taken to government headquarters, where official receptions and celebrations were prepared.

The exchange is seen as an essential step towards the future release of Shalit, which is likely to be in return for hundreds of long-term Hamas prisoners.

On the Gaza side of Israel's Erez checkpoint, hundreds of Palestinians waving green Hamas flags, the black banners of Islamic Jihad and the Palestinian national colours joined a convoy into the Mediterranean coast city.

Hamas prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, sent his official car to pick up Fatima al-Zaq, 40, and son Youssef abd bring them direct from the border to his office.

The baby was snatched from her arms in a media frenzy and passed overhead wailing into the embrace of Mr Haniyeh, who held up the boy for the crowd and kissed him.

The al-Zaq house was covered in posters and flags.

Husband Mohammed, who is a member of Islamic Jihad, said: 'We feel wonderful. People are celebrating with us, from all factions... the prisoners' release unites us.'

There has been no word from the Shalit family.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has not visited Shalit and only a few letters and an audio tape have reached his family.

Mr Netanyahu said in a statement on Wednesday it was 'important for the entire world to know that Gilad Shalit is alive and well and that Hamas is responsible for his well-being and his fate.'

Israel currently holds more than 10,000 Palestinian prisoners. Hamas is negotiating for the release of hundreds of its members in exchange for Shalit, including militants behind deadly attacks that Israel has previously said it would not free.

Shalit, who is also a French citizen, served in a tank unit. He was last seen when Islamist militants tunnelled into Israel and killed two soldiers.

Two attackers were also killed, but the group successfully abducted Shalit.

Israel has said none of the Palestinian women freed today were directly involved in killings or were serving more than a two year sentence.

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Added: Oct-2-2009 
By: Gr8virtue
News, Middle East
Tags: abducted, Israel, Palestinian, women, freed, Israeli, soldier, Hamas, healthy, and, coherent, Gilad, Shalit,
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