CAIRO: Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf on Tuesday hailed a prisoner swap deal between Israel and the Palestinians, and mediated by Cairo, saying it was part of efforts to boost regional stability.
Sharaf "stressed that Egypt’s efforts, which contributed to the success of the prisoner exchange deal, come as part of (its) support of efforts for stability and security in the region," in a statement on his Facebook page.
The premier stressed that these objectives "will be achieved through a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian question."
Under terms of the long-awaited deal signed last week between Israel and its sworn enemy Hamas, and mediated by Egypt, the Jewish state will free a total of 1,027 prisoners to secure the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
The deal comes after years of on-and-off negotiations by the government of ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt, along with Germany, helped mediate several rounds of talks on a prisoner exchange deal between Israel and Hamas, but talks broke down repeatedly over the issue of which Palestinians would be released, and to where.
The first 477 Palestinian prisoners were released early Tuesday into Gaza and the West Bank.
Around 40 of them met Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in Cairo, before they split into three groups headed to Qatar, Syria and Turkey, Hamas officials told AFP.
Earlier, unnamed Israeli officials told public radio that a deal to free US-Israeli national Ilan Grapel in exchange for 81 Egyptians was imminent.
Grapel, who has been in custody since June 12, has been accused of being an agent of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency and of sowing sectarian strife and chaos in Egypt during the uprising which ousted Mubarak in February.
There are 81 Egyptian prisoners, including three children, held in Israel. The majority face criminal charges, including illegal entry to Israel, drug trafficking and arms possession.
Arab League secretary general Nabil Al-Araby welcomed Tuesday’s release of the Palestinian prisoners and called for all those still in jail to be freed.
He called for "the release of all Palestinian and Arab prisoners and detainees who are still held by Israeli occupation forces".
"There are prisoners who have spent more than 30 years in jail, living in harsh and inhumane conditions, some of whom have not been on trial, in a blatant violation of all the rules of international humanitarian law," he said.
The names of the other 550 prisoners who are to be released in return for Shalit’s freedom have yet to be determined.
The hard-won deal between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement, which was signed last week, is the highest price the Jewish state has ever paid for one person.
Shalit was a 19-year-old corporal on duty along the Gaza border when he was captured on June 25, 2006 by militants from three Gaza-based groups, including Hamas.
Three days after he was snatched, Israel launched a massive military operation against Gaza in a bid to secure his release, which lasted five months and left more than 400 Palestinians dead.