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Hunger-striking Palestinian soccer player released

Israel released on Tuesday a member of the Palestinian national soccer team who had been held for three years without formal charges and who pushed for his freedom with a hunger strike of more than 90 days.

Mahmoud Sarsak, 25, was given a hero's welcome in his native Gaza where hundreds cheered him as he emerged from an ambulance at a local hospital. Sarsak, who had lost almost half his normal weight during the fast, was able to walk. He kissed his parents and siblings before undergoing medical checks.

Israel has accused Sarsak of being active in the violent group Islamic Jihad, a claim he denied while in custody. However, senior Islamic Jihad officials were present during his reception Tuesday, and one of the group's leaders, Nafez Azzam, praised the footballer as "one of our noble members."

Sarsak was released from an Israeli prison hospital earlier Tuesday, said the spokeswoman of the Israeli Prison Authority, Sivan Weizman.

Sarsak was arrested in July 2009 at a crossing between his native Gaza and Israel on his way to the West Bank for a soccer match. Israel's Shin Bet security service alleged that Sarsak once planted a bomb that injured an Israeli soldier but said it did not have sufficient evidence for a trial. As a result, Sarsak was held without charges.

In March, he launched a hunger strike to press for his release. He ended the fast in mid-June, after winning assurances that he would be freed.

During the hunger strike, doctors who examined him said he suffered from fainting spells, memory lapses and dangerous pulse disruptions.

Hundreds of Palestinians imprisoned by Israel have staged hunger strikes this year, but no one has generated as much international support as Sarsak.

As Sarsak's condition deteriorated, FIFA's president asked Israel's soccer federation to urgently intercede on the player's behalf with the Israeli authorities and FIFPro, an international organization of professional players, called for his release. Former Manchester United great Eric Cantona, British filmmaker Ken Loach and others signed a petition calling for freedom for the player.