IMAGE: Azzam Azzam
Enric Marti  /  AP file
Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab accused of spying for Israel against Egypt, in a  July 1997 file photo. Azzam was released by Egypt on Sunday.
updated 12/5/2004 9:47:56 AM ET 2004-12-05T14:47:56

Egypt freed an Israeli Arab man convicted of spying in exchange for Israel’s release of six Egyptian students Sunday, a swap that signaled a warming of relations between the two countries. Israel may also release Palestinian prisoners in the future, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said.

Egypt released Azzam Azzam, who was sentenced in 1997 to 15 years in prison after an Egyptian court convicted him of espionage. At the time, Azzam ran a textile factory in Egypt, and Israel has denied he was an agent. The case against Azzam was based, in part, on allegations he used invisible ink to transmit information.

Israel, in turn, released six Egyptian students who had sneaked into the country in August and were arrested on suspicion they tried to kidnap Israeli soldiers and commandeer a tank.

Warming relations
Azzam’s imprisonment has been a key point of friction between Israel and Egypt, whose ties remain cool despite their 1979 peace treaty, and the students’ arrest had angered many in Egypt. But Israel’s relations with the Palestinians and with Egypt have been steadily improving since the death last month of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

The transfer took place at the Taba crossing between Israel and Egypt. After Azzam crossed into Israel in a van, he was taken to a nearby airport at the Red Sea resort of Eilat. Israeli security officials who accompanied Azzam said he cried and flashed a victory sign as he emerged from the van.

Several hours later, he boarded a small military aircraft, smiling an waving before takeoff.

Asked by reporters how he was, he said: “Very good. Thank you, thank you.”

Azzam briefly spoke to his wife Amal, as well as to Sharon, from Eilat. “Azzam, I can’t believe it’s you,” his wife told him, looking faint and emotional as the family cheered in the background.

Sharon told Azzam he had worked hard for his release and that “the entire country is united in happiness over your return home.”

Azzam was expected to undergo a medical check before returning to his family in the northern Israeli village of Mughar. His brother, Iftan, said the family only found out earlier Sunday that he was about to be released.

“We invite the whole state of Israel to celebrate with us,” Iftan Azzam told Israel Radio.

More prisoner releases could follow
Sharon said in a statement Sunday that he was considering releasing an unspecified number of Palestinian prisoners as part of the swap with Egypt. More than 7,000 Palestinians are being held by Israel.

The swap came several days after Egypt’s foreign minister and intelligence chief met with Sharon in Jerusalem. Earlier this week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak praised Sharon, saying Palestinians should be able to strike a peace deal with the Israeli leader.

Mubarak’s comments marked a significant warming of ties after an extended frosty period during more than four years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. Shortly after the outbreak of the conflict in 2000, Egypt had withdrawn its ambassador from Israel.

However, Egypt expects to play a major role in Israel’s planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. Last week, Egypt and Israel agreed on deploying 750 Egyptian troops on the Egyptian side of the border with Gaza and on Palestinian security officials being sent to Egypt for training.

Azzam was arrested by Egypt in November 1996. At the time, he was the director of a textile factory in Egypt under joint Israeli-Egyptian ownership. The case against him included women’s underwear allegedly soaked in invisible ink.

An Egyptian teacher convicted as his accomplice was jailed for life with hard labor. Under Egyptian law, the court’s decision could not be appealed.

The arrests of the six Egyptian university students — and the recent shooting deaths of three Egyptian policemen by Israelis along the border — had inflamed public sentiments in Egypt.

Israeli officials said the six crossed into Egypt after their release. A security officer in the Egyptian city of al-Arish, near the border with Israel, said forces in the area were preparing to receive them.

Another Egyptian security official said the students may face charges in Egypt for illegally crossing the border.

Ahead of the swap, Youssry Hassan Salem, the father of one of the students held in Israel, said “we are sitting beside the phone to know the time and place where they are going to be released today.”

Salem said his son, Mohammed Youssri Hassan Salem, 24, engineering student at Helwan university, spoke to his family once in September and they received four letters from them since then. The other five were university students or recent graduates living in suburban Cairo.

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