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Israel celebrates return of captured soldier

TEL NOF AIR BASE, Israel -- Looking thin, weary and dazed, Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit emerged yesterday from more than five years in captivity, surrounded by Hamas militants with black face masks who handed him over to Egyptian mediators in an exchange for 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

Israeli officials said Schalit showed signs of malnutrition and his father said he needed time to recover from psychological and physical wounds.

More than 450 Palestinians were transferred from Israeli prisons to the West Bank and Gaza, where massive celebratory rallies festooned with green Hamas flags were held. In Gaza City, tens of thousands crammed into an open lot where a huge stage was set up, decorated with a mural depicting Schalit's capture in a June 2006 raid on an army base near the Gaza border. The crowd exhorted militants to seize more soldiers for future swaps.

The rest of the prisoners -- about 550 more -- are to be released in a second phase in two months.

Before he was flown to an Israeli air base where he was reunited with his parents, Schalit spoke to Egyptian TV in an interview Israeli officials later called "shocking." Looking gaunt and uncomfortable, Schalit struggled to speak at times, his breathing noticeably labored as he awkwardly answered questions. He said he felt good and was "very excited" to be going free.

Still, the circumstances of his release, along with the awkward TV interview, in which masked Hamas militants hovered in the background, raised questions about the conditions the 25-year-old had endured.

After a tumultuous day that included a reception with the prime minister, Schalit touched down in his hometown of Mitzpe Hila in northern Israel late yesterday on board a military helicopter.

Thousands of people jammed the streets and stood on rooftops to celebrate Schalit's return. A smiling Schalit briefly waved to the crowd before ducking into his family's house.

Stepping outside, Schalit's father, Noam, thanked the Israeli public for years of support and asked people to respect their privacy.

He said his son was healthy overall, but would need time to recover from psychological and physical wounds after five years in Hamas captivity.

Noam Schalit said his son was suffering from shrapnel wounds, apparently suffered during his 2006 abduction, as well as lack of exposure to sunlight. He also said his son was having trouble coping with all the attention.

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