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Palestinian leaders declare holiday to celebrate freed prisoners

From Michal Zippori, Paul Colsey and Kareem Khadder, CNN
updated 5:47 AM EDT, Thu October 20, 2011
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Freed Palestinians travel to Turkey, Syria, Qatar, Jordan
  • The prisoners are released in exchange of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit
  • Shalit was held for more than five years

Jerusalem (CNN) -- Palestinian leaders declared Wednesday a holiday for government institutions and schools in celebration of the release of prisoners in exchange of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Shalit arrived in his northern Israeli hometown Tuesday, his first day of freedom after more than five years in Hamas captivity.

In an arduous and emotional day for Israelis and Palestinians, Shalit won his release in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

"Gilad has come home after an exhausting and long struggle," said his father, Noam Shalit. "... He came home and walked up the steps that he left, and has come home, went through the door that he left so many days ago, 1,942 days ago."

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The first of several hundred released Palestinian prisoners made journeys of their own as crowds flooded the streets of Gaza, waving flags and banners, to welcome the inmates home.

Sixteen arrived in Damascus, according to Syria's official news agency while 15 arrived in Doha, reported Qatar's news agency.

Egyptian state-run newspaper said 46 Palestinians left Cairo and headed to Qatar, Turkey and Syria. Turkey's semiofficial Anatolian agency said 10 are coming to that country.

Shalit came via Egypt because it acted as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, which do not have relations.

Greeted along the road by hundreds of chanting and flag-waving supporters, people in the Galilee community laid out white roses and hung banners to welcome him back, erupting in joy at the return of the young man who became an international cause célèbre.

"He basically came out of a dark hole, in a dark basement, and came out of that to a great crowd. I'm sure that this was an amazing experience for him when he arrived here at our village to see all of this going on," his father said.

Noam Shalit said his son is suffering from small injuries, including shrapnel wounds.

Israel freed 477 Palestinian inmates from Israeli jails shortly before he was released, the first batch of Palestinians being swapped for his freedom.

CNN's Kevin Flower, Guy Azriel, Frederik Pleitgen, Schams Elwazer, Rima Maktabi and Zain Verjee contributed to this report.

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