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Israel, Egypt in prisoner swap

Azam arrives at court in this 1997 file photo.
Espionage and Intelligence
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Israel and Egypt swap prisoners amid improving relations.

CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- An Israeli businessman who spent eight years in an Egyptian jail after being accused of espionage was released Sunday as part of an agreement between the two countries.

In exchange for the release of Azam Azam, six Egyptian students were released by Israel.

A senior Egyptian foreign ministry official confirmed the release of the students, and the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon confirmed Azam's release.

The deal was struck last week when Omar Soleiman, head of Egyptian intelligence, visited Jerusalem.

A statement issued by Sharon's office said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, "in a personal gesture to the prime minister, had instructed the relevant Egyptian authorities to work to shorten the sentence of Azam Azam."

The release of the six "Egyptian infiltrators," Sharon's office said, was "a gesture of appreciation and gratitude" to Mubarak.

In addition, the statement said, Sharon asked Israeli authorities to consider shortening the prison terms of Palestinian prisoners "in accordance with previously determined criteria."

Azam was arrested in 1996 and charged with espionage. A worker at a textile plant in Cairo, he was accused of passing on Egyptian state secrets by soaking women's underwear in invisible ink. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison the following year.

Israel has been pressuring Egypt for his release for years, saying he was unjustly accused.

Witnesses report that Azam has crossed the border into Israel and has spoken with his family. He was to be flown to Tel Aviv to be reunited with them, CNN's John Vause reported in Jerusalem. Egyptian officials would not comment on his release.

In a phone conversation Saturday, Sharon told Azam that immediately following his election, he promised Azam's family that he would work toward his release.

"Since then, I have worked tirelessly in all my meetings with Egyptians and others in order to do so," Sharon said, according to a statement released by his office.

"I don't have the words to thank you for your determination," Azam said. "I am fortunate and proud to have been born in Israel."

The six students, ranging in age from 21 to 25, have been held in Israel since August, charged with illegally entering the country and plotting to kidnap and kill Israeli soldiers. An air rifle and 14 knives were found in their possession.

Relations between Israel and Egypt have been cool for the past few years, but have warmed somewhat in recent months as Israel prepares to withdraw from Gaza and has asked Egypt for help and support when it does so.

"This humanitarian gesture would make an additional contribution towards the deepening of bilateral relations," Sharon's office said.

CNN's John Vause in Jerusalem and Cairo Bureau Chief Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.

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