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Israel and Hamas agree to a prisoner-swap deal that will free Shalit

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Israel has agreed a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas to secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who will be “coming home” in a few days, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday.

“We have concluded arduous negotiations with Hamas to release Gilad Shalit. He will be coming home in the next few days,” the prime minister said in a nationally televised address.

Shortly after the announcement tens of thousands of people flooded into the streets of northern Gaza to celebrate the deal that will see Palestinian detainees freed in exchange for Shalit.

In a statement, Hamas said tens of thousands of people were taking part in celebratory rallies after a deal that is expected to see hundreds of Palestinians released in exchange for the captured Israeli soldier.

“Crowds of tens of thousands are heading towards the Khulafa Mosque in Jabaliya camp at the beginning of the human floods of joy for the victory of the resistance and the completion of the prisoner exchange,” the statement said.

Shalit was captured in Israel in 2006 by Palestinians in a cross-border abduction. He is believed to be in captivity in Gaza.

The exiled political chief of the Hamas movement, Khaled Meshaal, said in Syria that Israel would free 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, 27 of them women, in exchange for Shalit.

“Hamas and Israel have reached an agreement under which 1,027 Palestinians, of whom 27 are women, will be freed in two phases,” Meshaal said at a news conference in Damascus broadcast on Arabic-language television channels, calling the prisoners “our heroic detainees.”

Meshaal hailed Egypt for its role as a mediator in the agreement, and said 450 prisoners would be set free “in one week” and another 550 “in two months.”

“It is a great achievement, a qualitative success,” Meshaal said.

“Because of this accord, there will no longer be any women in the jails of the enemy.”

He said that of the Palestinian prisoners to be released, “315 were sentenced to life and others are serving terms of more than 10 years.”

Israel’s Channel 2 television said both sides had shown greater flexibility in recent behind-the-scenes talks that were held.

The main sticking point in earlier negotiations had been Israel’s reluctance to meet Hamas’ demands to free prisoners convicted of involvement in lethal attacks against Israelis.

Israel has carried out several lopsided prisoner swaps in the past, notably in 1985 when hundreds of Palestinian prisoners were freed in exchange for several soldiers captured by a guerrilla group in Lebanon.

The breakthrough pact, after many false dawns in years of secret efforts to free Shalit since he was captured , has no direct bearing on Middle East peace negotiations.

But it was virtually certain to improve the climate for international efforts to restart peace talks.

Prospects for peacemaking have been clouded by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's request for U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state and Israeli settlement expansion which Abbas has said must stop if negotiations are to begin again.

A source involved in the talks said the long elusive pact had been mediated by Egypt, playing a role which is likely to strengthen Israel's ties with Cairo, which have suffered since the fall of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in a revolution this year.