Egypt, Israel prepare for prisoner exchange

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JERUSALEM: Israel and Egypt prepared on Thursday for a prisoner swap under which Cairo will free a US-Israeli man accused of being a spy, in exchange for the release of 25 Egyptians jailed in the Jewish state.

The exchange is expected to occur late Thursday afternoon, with Israel transferring 25 Egyptians to Sinai via the Taba border crossing, as US-Israeli citizen Ilan Grapel is flown to Tel Aviv.

The Egyptian prisoners, all convicted of smuggling drugs or weapons or infiltrating Israel illegally, have already been moved to a staging prison in Beer Sheva, Israeli prison services spokeswoman Sivan Weizman told AFP.

Around noon, they will be moved to the Israeli border town Eilat, and their transfer across to Egypt is scheduled for around 5 pm (1500 GMT), she said.

Around the same time, US-Israeli citizen Ilan Grapel, arrested four months ago in Cairo, will fly from the Egyptian capital to Tel Aviv.

Israeli media reported that Grapel was expected to land in Tel Aviv around 6 pm local time (1600 GMT) and would then be taken to Jerusalem to meet briefly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before flying to New York.

The returning Egyptian prisoners, all of them Bedouin, were to be received at an official reception at a Taba hotel attended by the governors of North and South Sinai, as well as representatives of the Bedouin community in the area.

Israel published the names of the 25 prisoners on Oct. 25, giving Israeli citizens 48 hours to file legal challenges against their release.

But there has been little domestic opposition to the release of the prisoners, who reportedly include three minors who illegally crossed into Israel to sell cigarettes, and Israel’s high court rejected a lone legal challenge.

Grapel was arrested on June 12 and accused by Egypt’s military rulers of being an agent of Israel’s Mossad spy agency and of sowing sectarian strife during the uprising which ousted president Hosni Mubarak in February.

Israel has strongly denied the charges, insisting the whole thing was a mistake and accusing Egyptian authorities of "bizarre behavior."

The prisoner exchange comes shortly after Egypt mediated the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for more than five years, in return for the release of hundreds of Palestinian detainees.



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