Hamas frees hostages as Gaza truce takes hold

GAZA - Hamas on Friday freed a first batch of hostages seized in the deadliest attack in Israel's history under a deal that saw a temporary truce take hold in war-ravaged Gaza.

Thirteen Israeli hostages captured during 7 October cross-border raids were handed over to their country's security forces, an Israeli security source said.

It came after Hamas sources told AFP the hostages had been transferred to the Red Cross to be taken to the Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. AFPTV live footage showed Red Cross jeeps entering the crossing with passengers on board, some of them waving.

The first group of women and child hostages were set to return to Israel under a deal that followed weeks of talks involving Israel, Palestinian militant groups, Qatar, Egypt and the United States.

Israel is set to release three times as many Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails -- women and teenage boys.

Around 240 hostages were taken from southern Israel during the October 7 attacks

Key mediator Qatar confirmed Hamas had on Friday released a total of 24 hostages and that Israel had freed 39 women and children from its prisons.

"Those released include 13 Israeli citizens, some of whom are dual citizens, in addition to 10 Thai citizens and a Filipino citizen," its foreign ministry spokesperson Majed Al Ansari said.

A White House official said "we do not expect Americans to be among the first group released today but remain hopeful that there will be Americans among the 50 released".

Pictures released earlier by the Israeli army showed bright pink and blue headphones sitting on the seats of a helicopter ready for the released hostages to use, along with toys and teddy bears waiting at a reception centre where they were being taken to.

Red Cross convoy transporting Thai and Israeli hostages crosses into Egypt

In exchange, 150 Palestinians prisoners are expected to be released.

Hamas broke through Gaza's militarised border with Israel on 7 October, according to Israeli officials, about 1,200 people and seize around 240 Israeli and foreign hostages.


- 'Going home' -


The pause in fighting triggered a mass movement of thousands of Gazans who had sought refuge in schools and hospitals from relentless Israeli bombardment.

On the first day of a four-day truce, Palestinians walk through debris upon their return to Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza, to inspect their homes following weeks of Israeli bombardment
AFP | Mahmud HAMS

"I'm going home," Omar Jibrin, 16, told AFP after he emerged from a hospital in the south of the Gaza Strip where he and eight family members had sought refuge.

In Khan Yunis, in southern Gaza where many Palestinians fled, a cacophony of car horns and ambulance sirens has replaced the sound of war.

For Khaled al-Halabi, the truce is "a chance to breathe" after nearly seven weeks of war.

Halabi had taken refuge in Rafah but is from Gaza City in the north, much of which has been reduced to rubble.

Israel's retaliatory air, artillery and naval strikes alongside a ground offensive have killed about 15,000 people, the Hamas government in Gaza said.

Gazans have struggled to survive with shortages of water and other essentials. Trucks carrying more aid, including fuel, gas, and food, began moving into Gaza from the Rafah crossing with Egypt shortly after the truce began at 7:00 am.

Rafah border crossing
AFP | Laurence SAUBADU, Sylvie HUSSON

Jens Laerke, spokesman for the United Nations humanitarian agency, OCHA, expressed hope in Geneva that the pause "leads to a longer-term humanitarian ceasefire for the benefit of the people of Gaza, Israel and beyond."

He repeated the need for access across Gaza, especially in the north "where the damage and the humanitarian needs are the greatest".

According to the UN, 1.7 million of Gaza's 2.4 million people are estimated to have been displaced by the fighting.

Now, thousands of them are trying to get home.

In Khan Yunis, they loaded belongings onto carts, strapped them to car roofs, or slung bags over their shoulders, crowding streets to return to their homes from temporary shelters.

Palestinians pass an Israeli tank as they flee the north of Gaza

Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets warning people that the war is not over and it is "very dangerous" to return north, the focus of Israel's military campaign.

The truce was also a chance for some Palestinians to return to Gaza through the Rafah crossing.

In the morning, a few apparent gunshots could be heard and dark plumes of smoke rose periodically over northern Gaza, an AFPTV livecam showed, but the truce appeared to be holding in the afternoon.


- Carefully prepared -


Ziv Agmon, legal adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office, told reporters the hostages would be received individually or in groups by the Red Cross, taken across the border and handed to the Israeli army.

Palestinians who had taken refuge in temporary shelters return to their homes in eastern Khan Yunis
AFP | Mahmud HAMS

From El-Arish, in the Sinai, they would be flown to Israel, an Egyptian security source said.

Agmon said soldiers had been carefully prepared to receive potentially deeply traumatised women and children.

After medical examinations, the former captives will be able to telephone family members before reunions later at Israeli medical facilities, he added. 

AFP has confirmed the identities of 210 of the roughly 240 hostages.

At least 35 of those seized were children, with 18 of them aged 10 or under at the time.

Hamas earlier released four women and Israeli forces rescued another. Two other captives, including a woman soldier, were found dead by Israeli troops in Gaza.

Heavy Israeli deployment as Gazans flee south on first day of truce
AFP | Mahmud Hams

Maayan Zin, whose eight- and 15-year-old daughters Ela and Dafna are among the hostages, posted on social media platform X that she had been informed their names were not included.

"This is incredibly difficult for me; I long for their return," she wrote.


By Adel Zaanoun With Marc Jourdier In Jerusalem

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