Hamas militants released a third group of hostages including a four-year-old American girl on Sunday with more Palestinian prisoners set to be freed in exchange, as a source close to the group said it was willing to prolong a truce.
The exchanges 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.
The Israeli army said on Sunday that 13 released hostages were back on Israeli territory, and another four were on their way to Egypt.
US President Joe Biden announced that the 13 released included a four-year old American girl.
"She's been through a terrible trauma," Biden said of the girl, Abigail, whose parents were murdered by Hamas militants in the unprecedented attacks.
The other four 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 to launch 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.
Under the truce, 50 of the 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 on 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."
Dressed in 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 prime minister 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."
In the southern Gaza town 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."
Elswhere in Gaza, residents ventured back to pick through the ruins of their homes among heaps of rubble following weeks of bombardments.
"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." (AFP)
Last updated: 2023-11-27 HKT 02:19