Spy freed as part of prisoner exchange

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The Independent Online

An ecstatic Azzam Azzam, the Israeli Druze businessman held in an Egyptian jail for seven years on spying charges, was released yesterday in a prisoner swap seen as signalling a thaw in relations between the two countries.

An ecstatic Azzam Azzam, the Israeli Druze businessman held in an Egyptian jail for seven years on spying charges, was released yesterday in a prisoner swap seen as signalling a thaw in relations between the two countries.

Israel freed six Egyptian students arrested in August and charged with conspiring to kill and abduct Israeli troops. The deal was finalised when Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the Egyptian Foreign Minister, and Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief, visited Jerusalem last week. Mr Azzam, an Israeli Arab of the Druze Islamic sect, many of whose members serve in the Israeli army, passed through the Taba crossing between the Sinai peninsula and Israel yesterday afternoon after serving half of his 15-year sentence.

He reportedly told the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon: "Mr Prime Minister, thank you very much, I love you very much ... I told my brothers that if I'm not released while Arik Sharon is prime minister, I would never be released. I am fortunate and proud to have been born in Israel."

In 1997, an Egyptian state security court sentenced Mr Azzam, 41, from Galilee, to 15 years in prison for espionage and damaging Egyptian state security. But the Labour Knesset member Danny Yatom said he was ready to swear that Mr Azzam was not spying for Israel.

Israeli prosecutors had told Beersheva magistrates' court that the six Egyptian students, who were armed with an airgun and 14 knives when they were arrested, had plotted to kidnap Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining chips for Palestinian prisoners.

Parents of the Egyptian students have said that their sons had no political views and had gone to Israel merely to find work.

The Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, urged the Palestinian leadership last week to seek negotiations with Israel, saying: "It will be very difficult to secure advancements in the peace process in the post-Sharon era."

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