Hamas frees hostages as Gaza truce takes hold

A four-day truce in the Israel-Hamas war began on Friday with hostages set to be released in exchange for Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas on Friday freed a first batch of hostages seized in the deadliest attack in Israel’s history under a deal that saw a temporary truce take hold in war-ravaged Gaza.

Thirteen Israeli hostages captured during Palestinian militants’ cross-border raids were back in Israeli territory where they would undergo medical checks before being reunited with their families, the army said.

They included four children and six elderly women, an official Israeli list showed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to bring all the hostages home.

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“This is one of the goals of the war, and we are committed to achieving all the goals of the war,” he said.

A convoy of Red Cross vehicles was earlier seen crossing the border between Gaza and Egypt, with some of the passengers waving, after Hamas handed over the hostages to the humanitarian organisation.

Israel is set to free three times as many Palestinian prisoners — women and teenage boys — under a deal that followed weeks of talks involving Israel, Palestinian militant groups, Qatar, Egypt and the United States.

Key mediator Qatar confirmed Hamas had on Friday released a total of 24 hostages and that Israel had freed 39 women and children from its prisons.

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“Those released include 13 Israeli citizens, some of whom are dual citizens, in addition to 10 Thai citizens and a Filipino citizen,” its foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al Ansari said.

A White House official said “we do not expect Americans to be among the first group released today but remain hopeful that there will be Americans among the 50 released”.

Pictures released earlier by the Israeli army showed bright pink and blue headphones sitting on the seats of a helicopter ready for the released hostages to use, along with toys and teddy bears waiting at a reception centre where they were being taken to.

Hamas broke through Gaza’s militarised border with Israel on October 7 to kill, according to Israeli officials, about 1,200 people and seize around 240 Israeli and foreign hostages.

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During a four-day truce, at least 50 hostages are expected to be freed.

In exchange, 150 Palestinians prisoners are expected to be released.

Of the 39 released on Friday, 28 were freed in the occupied West Bank, an AFP correspondent saw, while the other 11 were on their way to annexed east Jerusalem.

Israeli forces used tear gas to disperse a crowd of Palestinians gathered near an Israeli prison in the West Bank, where two coaches were later seen leaving watched by armoured vehicles.

‘Going home’

The pause in fighting in Gaza triggered a mass movement of thousands of people who had sought refuge in schools and hospitals from relentless Israeli bombardment begun after attacks by Hamas militants.

“I’m going home,” Omar Jibrin, 16, told AFP after he emerged from a hospital in the south of the Gaza Strip where he and eight family members had sought refuge.

In Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza where many Palestinians fled, a cacophony of car horns and ambulance sirens has replaced the sound of war.

For Khaled al-Halabi, the truce is “a chance to breathe” after nearly seven weeks of war.

Israel’s retaliatory air, artillery and naval strikes alongside a ground offensive have killed about 15,000 people, most of them civilians, the Hamas government in Gaza said.

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Gazans have struggled to survive with shortages of water and other essentials.

Trucks carrying aid, including fuel, food and medicine, began moving into Gaza through the Rafah crossing from Egypt shortly after the truce began at 7:00 am (0500 GMT).

A total of 137 aid trucks were unloaded in Gaza — the biggest humanitarian convoy to enter the besieged territory since the war started, the United Nations said.

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN humanitarian agency, OCHA, expressed hope that the pause “leads to a longer-term humanitarian ceasefire for the benefit of the people of Gaza, Israel and beyond.”

He repeated the need for access across Gaza, especially in the north “where the damage and the humanitarian needs are the greatest”.

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According to the UN, 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.4 million people are estimated to have been displaced by the fighting.

In Khan Yunis, they loaded belongings onto carts, strapped them to car roofs, or slung bags over their shoulders, crowding streets to return to their homes from temporary shelters.

Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets warning people that the war is not over and it is “very dangerous” to return north, the focus of Israel’s military campaign.

In the morning, a few apparent gunshots were heard and dark plumes of smoke rose periodically over northern Gaza, an AFPTV livecam showed, but the truce appeared to be holding in the afternoon.

Carefully prepared

Ziv Agmon, legal adviser to Netanyahu’s office, told reporters before the hostages were freed that they would be received individually or in groups by the Red Cross, taken across the border and handed to the Israeli army.

From El-Arish, in the Sinai, they would be flown to Israel, an Egyptian security source said.

Agmon said soldiers had been carefully prepared to receive potentially deeply traumatised women and children.

After medical examinations, the former captives will be able to telephone family members before reunions later at Israeli medical facilities, he added.

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AFP has confirmed the identities of 210 of the roughly 240 hostages.

At least 35 of those seized were children, with 18 of them aged 10 or under at the time of their abduction.

Hamas earlier released four women and Israeli forces rescued another. Two other captives, including a woman soldier, were found dead by Israeli troops in Gaza.

Maayan Zin, whose eight- and 15-year-old daughters Ela and Dafna are among the hostages, posted on social media platform X that she had been informed their names were not on the list of those due to be released.

“This is incredibly difficult for me; I long for their return,” she wrote.

– By: © Agence France-Presse

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