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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 December, 2004, 14:06 GMT
Egyptian anger over 'spy' release
Some of the students on their way back to Egypt
The six students had not been charged by Israel
There has been a public outcry in Egypt at the exchange of a convicted Israeli spy for six Egyptian students charged with plotting to kill Israeli soldiers.

Opposition politicians and even the students' families criticised the deal.

The father of one student said a spy who had harmed Egypt should not have been bartered for "innocent students".

Azzam Azzam himself - a member of Israel's ethnically Arab Druze minority - has categorically denied he acted as an agent for the Israeli state.

Someone that has harmed Egypt and the Egyptian people should not have been swapped with innocent students
Yusri Salem
Father of Mohammed Yusri
The Egyptian students - Muhammad Yusri, Muhammad Maher, Moustafa Mahmoud, Moustafa Abu Deif, Mahmoud Ezzat and Emad Sayyed - said they entered Israel by mistake during a holiday in al-Arish in the Sinai peninsula.

"This deal is a sign of the demeaning and dishonouring of Egypt and the Arabs by the Israelis," said Diaa Eddin Daud of the opposition Nasserist party

"Nothing can justify this gift for Israel at time when it is increasing its aggression against the Palestinians and the Arabs," said Hussein Abdel Razzek of Tagammu.

Early release

Israeli PM Ariel Sharon with Azzam Azzam
Sharon welcomed Azzam's return in person
Egypt insists that technically it had not been an exchange of prisoners - because the decision to release Azzam for good behaviour had been taken in October.

It claimed implementation had been delayed until Israel released the students.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon welcomed Azzam home. He also insisted the charges had been baseless.

Azzam, an Israeli textiles worker, served half of a 15 year prison term.

He was convicted of helping to send news about Egyptian industrial cities to Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad.

He was said to have communicated secret messages in invisible ink written on women's underwear.

Critics of the conviction said there was no need to have resorted to such an elaborate method in the modern information age.

Rapprochement

BBC correspondent Simon Wilson says the release of Azzam - whose imprisonment was a frequent point of friction - comes amid signs of a possible improvement in relations between Egypt and Israel.

Scenes of joy in Azzam's home village of Mughar in Galilee
Azzam's release sparked scenes of joy in his home village
Egypt is reported to be considering sending an ambassador back to Tel Aviv after a long absence and taking on a security role in the Gaza Strip, with Israel due to pull out next year.

The two countries signed a peace deal in 1979, but relations have remained cool and worsened after the beginning of the Palestinian intifada in 2000.

The state security court in Cairo sentenced Azzam, 41, a member of Israel's minority Druze community, to 15 years in prison in August 1997.

An Egyptian accomplice, Emad Abdel-Hamid Ismail, was given 25 years.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is now considering shortening the sentences of some Palestinian militants as part of the rapprochement - which comes in the wake of the death last month of veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.



SEE ALSO:
Israel 'backs Egypt border force'
02 Dec 04 |  Middle East
Thaw in Egypt-Israel cold peace
05 Dec 04 |  Middle East
Country profile: Egypt
21 Oct 04 |  Country profiles


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