Israel-Egypt prisoner swap called sign of improving security ties

Monday, December 6, 2004

JERUSALEM Egypt and Israel have completed a prisoner swap that is expected to allow the release of Palestinian detainees.

Israel released six Egyptian insurgents in exchange for a convicted Israeli spy on Sunday in a move that Israeli officials said reflected increased security cooperation between Cairo and Jerusalem. The exchange was the first in decades between the two neighbors and resulted in the release of an Israeli national held by Egypt since 1996.

"The realm of security cooperation is going well," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said. "The Egyptians over the last year have not only become a dominant force, but a more positive force."

The Egyptian insurgents, identified as university students, were arrested in August as they tried to enter Israel, Middle East Newsline reported. At the time, Israeli authorities said the students sought to attack Israeli soldiers and civilians.

The Egyptian-Israeli exchange is also to include the release of Palestinian detainees, officials said. They said the release would take place after the Palestinian Authority elections on Jan. 9 and would include those deemed as major figures in Palestinian political movements, such as Fatah, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

For his part, Shalom said Israel and Egypt were discussing the establishment of an Egyptian liasion office in the West Bank. The liasion office would serve to coordinate with both Israeli and PA forces in the area. Israel has already agreed in principle to the deployment of 750 Egyptian police commandos along the eight-kilometer Egypt-Gaza border.

On Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel sought strategic relations with Egypt. Mofaz said Israel would help facilitate Egyptian training of PA security forces in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Officials said the negotiations for the release of the purported Israeli spy, identified as Azzam Azzam, age 41, took more than a year. They said the talks included several discussions between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Hours after the prisoners exchange, Mubarak and Sharon held a telephone conversation. The two men were said to have agreed to expand security cooperation.

In 1997, Azzam was sentenced to 15 years prison on espionage. Azzam had been the director of a textile factory in Egypt under joint Israeli-Egyptian ownership.

Officials said Egypt twice delayed the prisoner exchange in November. They cited the death of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and an Israeli shelling along the Egyptian-Gaza border in which three Egyptian police officers were killed.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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