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Israel begins prisoner pardons

Israel has begun the process of formally pardoning hundreds of Palestinian prisoners who are to be exchanged for an Israeli soldier held by Gaza militants for five years.

A spokeswoman for President Shimon Peres said he received the files of hundreds of prisoners set for release in the first phase of the deal and has 48 hours to sign the pardons. The swap is expected to happen on Tuesday.

Under the deal, 1,027 Palestinians - including some behind attacks on Israelis - will be released in two stages in return for Sgt Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Hamas-backed militants in a 2006 cross-border raid.

Israel has agreed to uneven prisoner exchange deals for decades. This swap, however, is the most lopsided to date.

Critics say it encourages more abductions, is unjust to families of those killed in attacks and also poses the risk that freed militants will return to violence.

The list of prisoners included in the deal has been officially released, and in a mostly symbolic gesture, Israelis will be able to raise appeals.

Among the Palestinian prisoners to be freed are many involved in plotting suicide bombings inside restaurants and buses as well as shooting attacks that killed hundreds of Israelis and injured many more.

Nasser Iteima, who was behind the bombing of a Netanya hotel on Passover eve in 2002 that killed 30 people and wounded 140, will be released, as will Walid Anjes who was jailed for orchestrating a bombing at the Moment cafe in Jerusalem that killed 11 people and maimed dozens that same year.

Israel's Channel 2 TV showed a prison interview with Ahlam Tamimi, who is expected to be released. In 2001, she transported a suicide bomber to a Sbarro restaurant in central Jerusalem, where he killed 15 people. Asked if she felt remorse, Tamimi said: "No, why should I?"

Israel is expected to release around 450 Palestinian prisoners on the same day that Sgt Schalit is freed and about 550 more two months later. Prisoners headed to the West Bank are typically left at Israeli checkpoints scattered throughout the territory. Waiting Palestinian buses ferry them back home.

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