More captives, prisoners freed as Gaza truce extension mooted
Hamas militants released a third group of hostages including a four-year-old American girl on Sunday with more Palestinian prisoners freed in exchange, as a source close to the group said it was willing to prolong a truce.
The transfers under a four-day ceasefire that started Friday have been the first relief for captives' families since the militant group attacked Israel on October 7, prompting devastating Israeli bombardments of the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials said a total of 17 hostages were now back on Israeli territory.
United States President Joe Biden announced that among those freed is a four-year-old American girl.
"She's been through a terrible trauma," Biden said of Abigail, whose parents were murdered by Hamas militants in the unprecedented attacks.
Along with 13 Israelis, four others were released outside the terms of the truce -- including one Russian-Israeli who Hamas said was freed "in response to the efforts of Russian President Vladimir Putin".
Those freed were among around 240 captured on October 7 when Hamas fighters broke through Gaza's militarised border with Israel in the deadliest attack in Israel's history, killing about 1,200 Israelis and foreigners, according to Israeli authorities.
In response, Israel launched an air, artillery and naval bombardment alongside a ground offensive to destroy Hamas, killing nearly 15,000 people, mostly civilians and including thousands of children, according to the Hamas government in Gaza.
Sunday's releases bring the total number of Israelis freed under the deal to 39 since Friday.
In exchange, a further 39 Palestinian prisoners were freed on Sunday, the Israeli prison service said.
This followed the release of 78 other Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails over the past two days.
A source close to Hamas said the Islamist movement, which has an armed wing, was willing to extend the current truce for up to four days beyond its initial expiry date.
"Hamas informed the mediators that the resistance movements were willing to extend the current truce by two to four days," the source told AFP.
"The resistance believes it is possible to ensure the release of 20 to 40 Israeli prisoners" in that time, they added.
Four Hamas leaders killed
Under the terms of the truce, 50 hostages held by the militants are to be freed over four days in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, with a built-in extension mechanism to prolong the process as long as at least 10 Israeli captives are released each day.
A Qatari operations team visited Israel to "coordinate with the parties on the ground and with counterparts in Doha to ensure the deal continues to move smoothly, and to discuss further details of the ongoing deal", according to a source with knowledge of the talks.
Biden said Sunday he hoped the truce brokered by Egypt, Qatar and the United States, would extend "beyond tomorrow".
Israeli leaders have tempered hopes of a lasting halt to the offensive.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday: "We continue until the end -- until victory."
Wearing green military fatigues and surrounded by soldiers, he vowed to free all the hostages and "eliminate Hamas", in footage posted online by his office.
He spoke while making the first visit to Gaza by an Israeli premier since 2005.
"Nothing will stop us, and we are convinced that we have the power, the strength, the will and the determination to achieve all the war's goals, and we will," Netanyahu said.
In the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, residents received a text message from Israeli forces that said: "We know there are hostages being held in Khan Yunis. The army will neutralise anyone who has kidnapped hostages."
Elsewhere in Gaza, residents ventured back to pick through the ruins of their homes among heaps of rubble following weeks of bombardment.
"I came to see if there was anything left, if there was anything I could salvage. We fled with nothing," said Oussama al Bass, inspecting the ruins of his home in Al-Zahra, south of Gaza City.
"It's nothingness, everything is destroyed, everything is lost," he said. "We're tired. That's enough. We can't take it anymore."
On the outskirts of Gaza city, families took to the road on foot to head south, pushing luggage and relatives in wheelchairs, and carrying children in their arms.
Hamas's military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said Sunday that its northern brigade commander Ahmed Al-Ghandour and four other senior leaders had been killed, without specifying when.
Happiness at hostage release
In the previous round of captive releases, relatives voiced joy at the return of hostages including a nine-year-old Israeli-Irish girl, and cheering crowds greeted Palestinian prisoners as they left a jail in the West Bank.
"We are overjoyed to embrace Emily again, but at the same time, we remember... all the hundreds of hostages who have yet to return," her family said.
Among the group of Palestinians released earlier was 38-year-old Israa Jaabis, sentenced to 11 years in jail for detonating a gas cylinder at a checkpoint in 2015.
"I... have pain on an emotional level and I am missing my relatives. But this is the tax a prisoner pays," she said after returning to her home.
Saturday's releases went ahead despite a last-minute delay that highlighted the fragile nature of the process.
Hamas had accused Israel of breaking the terms of the agreement. Israel denied the allegation.
Aid trucks enter Gaza
The pause in fighting has allowed more aid to reach Palestinians struggling to survive with shortages of water and other essentials.
Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), warned of "unprecedented" humanitarian needs.
"We should send 200 lorries a day continuously for at least two months," he said.
Gaza civil defence spokesman Mahmoud Bassel called for deliveries of heavy machinery "to search for survivors and bodies and to clear the ruins".
The UN estimates that 1.7 million of Gaza's 2.4 million people have been displaced by the fighting.