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Mideast prisoner exchange set to begin

JERUSALEM -- The elaborate machinery of a prisoner swap deal between two bitter enemies swung into motion yesterday, as hundreds of Palestinians and one Israeli soldier prepared to return home in one of the most dramatic recent developments in the otherwise deadlocked Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The Israel-Hamas deal, to take place this morning, is going ahead despite criticism and court appeals in Israel against the release of 1,027 Palestinians for a single captured Armored Corps sergeant, Gilad Schalit, held by militants in Gaza since 2006.

The exchange, negotiated through mediators because Israel and Hamas will not talk directly to each other, involves a delicate series of staged releases, each one triggering the next.

When it is over, Schalit, 19 years old at the time of his capture, and 25 now, will be free, ending what for Israel has been a prolonged and painful saga. Israel was forced to acknowledge that it had no way of rescuing Schalit in a military operation, though the soldier was held no more than a few miles from its border.

Instead, Israel agreed to a lopsided prisoner exchange that Hamas officials have openly said will encourage them to capture more soldiers, and which will free Palestinians convicted of some of the deadliest attacks against Israeli civilians in recent memory.

Numerically uneven swaps for captured or dead Israeli soldiers held by armed Arab groups have taken place a number of times since the 1980s. The last one, in 2008, saw the release of five militants in return for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held by the Lebanese group Hezbollah. In a deal with Hezbollah in 2004, Israel freed about 400 prisoners in return for a former army colonel and the bodies of three soldiers.

When today's exchange is complete, 477 Palestinians held in Israeli jails will have been released, several of them after decades behind bars. Another 550 are to be released in two months.

Palestinians in the initial part of the exchange have already been moved in preparation for their release. The very first group, 27 women, are to walk free sometime after dawn.

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