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Israel, Egypt finalize prisoner swap

(Xinhua)

08:20, October 28, 2011

Veicles delivering Egyptian prisoners arrive at Taba Crossing between Egypt and Israel, on Oct. 27, 2011. Egypt and Israel began to swap prisoners at Egypt's Taba Crossing Thursday afternoon, Egyptian state TV reported. The 25 Egyptian prisoners, who were freed by Israeli side in exchange for the release of suspected Israeli-American spy Ilan Grapel, crossed the border into Egypt through Taba Crossing. (Xinhua/Yin Dongxun)

JERUSALEM/EILAT, Israel, Oct. 27 (Xinhua) -- The Israeli- Egyptian prisoner swap deal concluded Thursday afternoon after a convoy carrying 25 Egyptian nationals crossed the border into Egypt, while Israeli-American Ilan Grapel, held four months in Cairo, landed at the Israeli Ben-Gurion International Airport a short time later.

The Israel Prison Service (IPS) convoy carrying the Egyptian prisoners crossed the Taba crossing point in the southern port city of Eilat at 5 p.m. local time (1500 GMT).

According to the swap deal reached by Egyptian and Israeli officials earlier this week, Grapel was initially to cross into Israel at 9 a.m. local time via the same crossing point.

However, in the end officials from both countries agreed to fly him directly from Cairo to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport at 5 p.m., possibly in order to avoid a press crush similar to that accompanied the Shalit-Hamas deal.

Grapel, 27, was arrested by Egyptian security officials in June, being charged with "spying on Egypt with the aim of harming its economic and political interests."

The Israeli government on Tuesday approved a swap deal with Egypt to release 25 Egyptian prisoners, among them three minors, in exchange for Grapel.

After being released on Thursday afternoon, Grapel, accompanied by his mother, traveled to Jerusalem for a short meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"This was hanging on a thread and I am glad it worked," Netanyahu said in his office to Grapel. "I am very grateful to the governments of Egypt and the United States," he was quoted by the Haaretz daily as saying.

Yisrael Hasson, an Israeli legislator who negotiated Grapel's release with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's envoy Yitzhak Molcho, told the Haaretz daily that Grapel went to the demonstrations in Cairo just "out of curiosity."

According to Hasson, Oda Tarabin, an Israeli that has been held in Egypt for 11 years, was mentioned during the negotiations with Egyptian officials.

"The issue of Tarabin was on the table, and is still on the table and I hope it will end toward the best. The less we speak about it, the better," Hasson said.

It is unclear if New York-born Grapel, who immigrated with his family to Israel and served in the army here and later returned, will remain in Israel after his release or return to his studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

The Prime Minister's Office said this week that none of the 25 Egyptians were charged with security-related offenses. According to the IPS, most of them were convicted of drug and smuggling charges.

A few dozen relatives of other Egyptians still jailed in Israel protested near the Israeli-Egyptian border around Thursday noon, calling for their loved ones to be freed, according to a Xinhua reporter at the scene.

The bus carrying 25 Egyptian prisoners was escorted by the Nachshon unit of the IPS, which is tasked with dealing with high- risk security prisoners. Meanwhile, over 150 Israeli policemen, IPS security personnel, and army forces secured the area.

Israeli Army Southern Command chief Maj.-Gen. Tal Russo earlier declared the area on the Israeli side of the border crossing a closed military zone, which included the nearby waters of the Red Sea until 6:30 p.m.

The Taba border crossing was closed for the first time in decades due to the prisoner exchange. Reporters were not allowed to approach the convoy, and no officials were available for comment.

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