Hamas has extradited a wanted Al-Qaida militant to Egypt in exchange for Cairo's agreement to allow dozens of stranded Hamas and Islamic Jihad members to return to the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian news agency Maan reported on Monday.

Scores of Palestinian militants who had been stranded in Egypt since Hamas took over Gaza were allowed back into the territory on Sunday, witnesses said, signaling possible new accommodation between Cairo and the Islamist group.

Egypt, the architect of Arab rapprochement with Israel, has straddled a diplomatic fence with Hamas, neither shunning it nor accepting its violent removal of Western-backed Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah faction from the Gaza Strip.

But in what Hamas sources described as a deal between Hamas and Egypt, around 85 militants crossed into Gaza overnight through Rafah, a terminal on the Egyptian border which had been closed for three months after Abbas' monitors were chased out.

Egypt's Interior Ministry confirmed that they had agreed with Hamas to transport the people across the border. It gave no explanation.

Israel, which opposed the return of some of the Palestinians, said it was unaware of an Egypt-Hamas agreement. Egypt told Israel that about 28 Palestinians, including senior Hamas figures, broke through the Egypt-Gaza fence, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman said.

But the crossing appeared to be organized with Egyptian cooperation, witnesses said.

The Palestinians were transported to the Egyptian side of the border in Egyptian buses, allowed across by Hamas security and then met at a Hamas security in included a prominent Hamas lawmaker, Mushir al-Masri, and Hamas loyalists sent for training in Muslim countries before the militant Islamic group's Gaza takeover, witnesses said. They did not speak to journalists at the scene.

During the crossing, Hamas security officials tried to keep the operation a secret, confiscating film from photographers and cameramen alerted to the scene.

The militants, whom witnesses and Hamas sources said included senior Hamas figures, had refused to avail themselves of an alternative return route to Gaza that runs through neighboring Israel for fear of being arrested by the Israelis.

Hamas sources said that the Popular Resistance Committees, a Gaza-based militant group, took part in talks with Egypt on temporarily reopening Rafah.

Palestinian diplomats in Cairo estimate that 2,000 Palestinians remain stranded in Egypt, including university students, people who had sought medical care abroad, and people who had been visiting relatives at the time of the Gaza takeover.

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