Shalit release boosts Mideast peace hopes

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World leaders voiced hope Tuesday that the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit after more than five years in Hamas captivity would boost the Middle East peace process and ease regional tensions.

Elation was interspersed with relief in France at the release of Shalit, a dual French-Israeli national, whose freedom triggered the first releases of some 1,027 Palestinian prisoners being freed under an accord.

President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed the 24-year-old's release as "a huge relief for France" and said that Shalit, captured by Gaza-based Palestinian militants in 2006, would "soon" travel to France.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton welcomed the "end of a long ordeal" adding that Shalit had been held "far too long".

"We are pleased that Gilad Shalit is being reunited with his family," said Jay Carney, US President Barack Obama's spokesman.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon "welcomed the recent prisoner exchange agreement and views today's releases as a significant humanitarian breakthrough", said his spokesman Martin Nesirky.

"He has long called for the end of the unacceptable captivity of Gilad Shalit and has also called for the release of Palestinian prisoners," and for years UN officials have "actively supported channels of dialogue to resolve this issue".

Ban "thanks Egypt for its contribution to this outcome, and Germany for its efforts", Nesirky said.

The head of the German intelligence service, Ernst Uhrlau, last week indicated that his agents played a part in securing the release.

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf on Tuesday said the Cairo-mediated prisoner swap deal was part of efforts to boost "stability and security in the region," in a statement on his Facebook page.

Sharaf stressed that these objectives "will be achieved through a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian question."

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron meanwhile praised his Israeli counterpart for agreeing to the deal under which some convicted killers are to walk free after serving only a fraction of their sentences.

"I congratulate Prime Minister Netanyahu and everyone involved for bringing him home safely, and hope this prisoner exchange will bring peace a step closer," Cameron said in a statement.

Italy's Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said he hoped the release of Shalit would "open a new chapter of hope for peace in the Middle East".

"The prisoners' exchange agreement ... can be read as a message of peace and can serve to encourage a resumption of negotiations," he added in reference to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

"We believe this helps promote a healthy atmosphere in the region and improves the state of Palestinian-Israeli relations," the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.

Hamas and the Arab League meanwhile called on Israel to release all Arab prisoners in its custody.

Arab League secretary general Nabil al-Arabi called in a statement for "the release of all Palestinian and Arab prisoners and detainees who are still being held by Israeli occupation forces".

And Hamas deputy chief Mussa Abu Marzuk warned that "Israel must realise it has to free our remaining prisoners. If they are not released normally, they will be released in other ways".

German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed Egypt for its "crucial" role in arranging the swap and said she hoped it would improve relations between Israel and Cairo.

"It is to be hoped that Israel's and Egypt's successful collaboration in this regard will lead to a return to good-neighbourly relations between the two countries after the period of recent tensions," her spokesman Steffan Seibert said.

Along with Jordan, Egypt is one of only two Arab neighbours who have diplomatic relations with Israel. However those ties have been severely strained in recent weeks, with a mob attacking the Israeli embassy in Cairo in retaliation for the killing of six border policemen in August.

Turkey, once the Jewish state's closest friend in the Muslim world, has frozen some of its ties with its one-time ally since Israeli forces last year killed nine Turks in a raid on a flotilla carrying aid to Gaza.

However Bulent Arinc, Turkey's deputy prime minister, said that Ankara hoped the release would lead to an end to bloodshed.

"In this exchange... and in protecting the life of Shalit until today, Turkey made very significant contributions," Arinc told the Anatolia news agency, adding that Israel was "aware" of Turkey's role but did not elaborate.

"All our hope is silencing the weapons, stopping the blood and (making) Palestine... a more free, independent and secure state within its own borders."

Meanwhile Iran, Israel's arch enemy, welcomed the mass release of Palestinian prisoners.

"Iran congratulates the Palestinian nation on the release of prisoners held captive by the illegitimate Zionist regime," said foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast.


© 2011 AFP

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