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Hamas has freed two more of the dozens of hostages its militants captured during their assault on Israel earlier this month, amid ongoing diplomatic efforts to contain the soaring tensions in the Middle East.
The two Israeli women were named by the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office as Nurit Cooper and Yocheved Lifshitz. They were seized from the kibbutz of Nir Oz by Hamas militants who over-ran towns across southern Israel on October 7 in the deadliest ever attack on the territory of the Jewish state.
The husbands of both women, who were kidnapped at the same time, are both still being held in captivity in Gaza, the prime minister’s office added.
Chris Hanger, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said that the organisation had transported the two hostages out of Gaza on Monday evening. “We are ready to facilitate any future release,” he said.
The prime minister’s office said that Cooper, who is 79, and Lifshitz, 85, were now on their way to a medical centre in Israel where they would be met by family members. It thanked Egypt and the Red Cross for their role in the rescue.
The release follows the freeing of two other female hostages on Friday, and brings the total number of captives set free by Hamas to four.
A person in the US familiar with the negotiations said talks were also ongoing for the release of another 50 hostages held in Gaza.
Israel’s military said earlier on Monday that at least 222 people were still being held hostage in Gaza. Hamas previously claimed that its militants were holding about 200 captives, and that there could be as many as 50 others held by other factions in the coastal enclave.
The latest hostage release comes amid intense efforts by diplomats to prevent the war between Israel and Hamas from spiralling into a broader conflict, with fears that other groups, such as the Iran-backed Hizbollah, which dominates southern Lebanon, could be drawn into the fighting.
Hamas militants killed more than 1,400 people and injured more than 5,400 in their surprise attack on Israel earlier this month, according to Israeli officials. Israel has killed 5,087 people and injured 15,273 in its subsequent bombardment of Gaza, according to Palestinian officials, while its siege of the enclave has exacerbated the dire humanitarian conditions there.
The fate of the hostages held in Gaza is one of several factors holding back Israel’s widely expected ground invasion of the impoverished enclave, which has still not been launched 17 days after Hamas’s assault on Israel, despite repeated hints from Israeli officials that it is imminent.
Netanyahu said after the first prisoner release on Friday that Israel would not give up on the effort “to return all the abducted and missing persons”.
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz