Parents march to free captured Israeli sergeant

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The family of a captured Israeli soldier set out on a 12-day march to Jerusalem yesterday to press Israeli leaders to make a deal with his Hamas captors to free him.

Sgt Gilad Schalit, now 23, was taken prisoner four years ago during a cross-border raid by militants from Gaza. His parents say they will camp outside the official residence of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, until their son is released.

"Today we say: 'We won't wait any longer in our home,' " Sgt Schalit's father, Noam Schalit, said before starting the march from Mitzpe Hila near the Lebanese border. Israel's leaders, he added, "have to put an end to this sad saga." Thousands of supporters, including supermodel Bar Refaeli, are expected to join the march.

Israel has agreed to release many of the 1,000 Palestinian prisoners that Hamas wants freed but has balked at letting out some who were convicted of involvement in attacks on Israelis.

Sgt Schalit's capture helped spark Israel's blockade of Gaza. But his parents say the Israeli government has abandoned their son and lost important leverage over Hamas by easing the embargo without his release.

Little is known about Sgt Schalit's condition. His captors have barred any access to him and released only a brief videotaped statement last year to prove he was still alive. Mr Netanyahu has been careful to avoid public conflict with his parents. But Israel has a long history of paying a disproportionate price for its captive soldiers.