Azzam Freed, in Exchange for Six Would-Be Murderers

Egypt has taken another step to smooth relations with Israel by releasing an imprisoned Israeli-Druze businessman in exchange for six Egyptian students who conspired to murder IDF soldiers.

, | updated: 16:15

Egypt also announced it is considering returning its ambassador to Israel.

Azzam Azzam, of the Druze town of Merer in the Galilee, crossed into Israel at 12:34 this afternoon, after being held in Egyptian prison since November 1996 on charges of espionage. He and Israel authorities have vigorously denied any connection between him and Israel security services. Azzam, 41, was managing an Israeli-Egyptian textile factory when he was arrested on charges of using invisible ink to convey information to Israel.

In exchange for Azzam, Israel freed six Egyptian students who were suspected of planning to rob a bank, capture a tank and kidnap IDF soldiers. The students, all residents of Cairo, were caught this past August with knives and equipment for spying.

Prime Minister Sharon said he will also consider shortening the sentences of Arab prisoners in Israeli prisons, "in accordance with criteria set in the past."

Azzam's wife found out about the deal only this morning, though his brothers were briefed on Friday. Foreign news sources reported the deal this morning, but publication in Israel was forbidden until early this afternoon.

Efforts to free Azzam have recently been rumored to be connected with attempts to release Jonathan Pollard from his American cell. Some of the reports also included the freeing of jailed terrorist murderer Marwan Barghouti as part of the deal. Pollard himself has stated he would refuse to be part of a deal to free Barghouti.

Azzam crossed the Taba border shortly after noon today (Sunday), seven years before the conclusion of his 15-year hard-labor sentence. He was jailed in a six-by- six foot cell. His family thanked the Israeli government for winning his release, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office thanked Egypt for his release. "Welcome home," Sharon told Azzam by telephone. "This is… a moment that we have waited for a long time."

Azzam replied, "Thank you very much. I love you very much. I am fortunate and
proud to have been born in Israel."

The Egyptian state newspaper Al-Ahram reported that Israel and Egypt agreed on the prisoner exchange last week during a visit to Israel by Egyptian's Foreign Minister and intelligence chief.

The Committee to Free Jonathan Pollard expressed its happiness for Azzam and his family, but added, "One must be very na?ve to believe that Sharon, who is able to obtain the release of Azzam from Egyptian prison, is not able to rescue Jonathan Pollard from our 'great friend,' the United States, headed by his 'good friend,' George Bush."

Egypt recalled its ambassador from Israel following the outbreak of the Oslo War in late 2000, and has not yet allowed him to return. There has been some speculation that Egypt might rectify this situation following the PA elections on January 9. Israeli Foreign Ministry officials indicated that this would be a welcome and necessary move.

Relations between Israel and Egypt have "warmed up" significantly over the past few weeks. Cairo is anxious to have great influence in planned future negotiations between the Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Over the last few days, Egyptian forces along the border with Israel have been enhanced, for the stated purpose of controlling the smuggling of arms and ammunition between Egypt and Gaza.

It should be noted that Border Guard police discovered an abandoned cache of ten Kalachnikov rifles and magazine, as well as a motorcycle that was to have been used in smuggling them into Israel, during a search of the Israeli-Egyptian border last night. In the past month, 34 rifles have been found in that spot.