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Middle East

Palestinians celebrate homecoming of their prisoners

Tens of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza celebrated the homecoming today of their prisoners and demanded militants seize more Israeli soldiers for future exchanges.

Hamas, which had negotiated the swap for sergeant Gilad Shalit, organised a mass celebration that turned into a show of strength for the Islamic militant movement.

A huge stage was set up, decorated with a mural depicting Shalit's capture in a June 2006 at an army base near the Gaza border.

"The people want a new Gilad," the crowd chanted. Thousands more Palestinian prisoners remaining in Israeli jail.

Thousands hoisted green Hamas flags, while a far smaller number raised the banners of rival movement Fatah. The released prisoners were making their way from the border with Egypt, on the southern edge of the Gaza Strip, to Gaza City in the north, and many thousands were lining the street to cheer on the convoy.

In the West Bank, rival Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas addressed a crowd of several thousand, including released prisoners and their relatives. In an attempt at unity, he shared a stage with three Hamas leaders in the West Bank and at one point, the four men raised clasped hands in triumph.

However Mr Abbas is likely to suffer politically as a result of the swap, the most significant for the Palestinians in nearly three decades. Over years of negotiating with Israel, he has only been able to bring about the release of those who had little time left on their sentences.

In contrast, a majority of the 477 prisoners freed had been serving life terms for killing Israelis, and their release violated a long-standing Israeli pledge not to free those with "blood on their hands." An additional 550 were to be freed in two months.

In his speech, Mr Abbas praised the released prisoners as "freedom fighters."

He suggested that his method of negotiations was also bearing fruit, saying that "there is an agreement between us and the Israeli government on another batch (of releases) similar to this batch after it finishes."

More than 300 of the prisoners arrived in Gaza, the rest in the West Bank.

In both locations, relatives eagerly awaited the returnees.

In Gaza City, Azhar Abu Jawad, 30, celebrated the return of a brother who had been sentenced to life for killing an Israeli in 1992. She said she last saw him eight years ago, before Israel banned visits by Gazans.

"My happiness is indescribable," she said. "We'll get him a bride and everything. I just spoke to him. He's so happy. This is a reminder, God doesn't forget anyone."

Among those arriving in Gaza were prisoners who grew up in the West Bank, but were being deported to Gaza. Israel's security chiefs have said they wanted to keep prisoners still deemed dangerous from the West Bank, which has relatively open borders with Israel. Gaza is tightly sealed by an Israeli border fence.

Israel prevents most movement between the West Bank and Gaza.

In the West Bank, released prisoners were also given a hero's welcome.

Fakhri Barghout, 57, was carried on the shoulders of one man and was surrounded by chanting relatives. Sentenced to life for killing an Israeli, Barghout had spent 34 years in prison, making him one of the longest-serving inmates.