BUREIJ REFUGEE CAMP, Gaza Strip — A Hamas militant who escaped from an Egyptian prison and sneaked back to Gaza though a smuggling tunnel received a hero's welcome Sunday by the Palestinian Islamist movement.
Egypt arrested Ayman Nofal in the northern Sinai Peninsula town of El-Arish three years ago and accused him of planning bomb attacks. Along with thousands of other prisoners, Nofal took advantage of the chaos in Egypt to escape last week. He returned to Gaza on Saturday.
Welcoming several dozen supporters to his home in a central Gaza refugee camp on Sunday, Nofal denied accusations that he was on a Hamas mission when he was arrested. He said he had crossed the border with hundreds of thousands of other Gazans when militants blasted open the border wall in January 2008 to protest Egypt's cooperation with Israel in blockading the territory.
Before his arrest, Nofal was a field commander in central Gaza for Hamas' militant wing, known as the Al-Qassam Brigades. Hamas actively campaigned for his release and often accused Egypt of torturing him.
A banner hung outside his home Sunday read: "The Al-Qassam Brigades greet the leader Ayman Nofal for his safe return and liberation."
Hamas' Al-Aqsa TV showed a number of Hamas parliamentarians and one Cabinet minister visiting Nofal at his home. Inside, family members served sweets and fruit drinks.
Nofal, 34, denied he had been tortured in Egypt, though he said his captors threatened to use electric shocks on him and did use them on other prisoners.
Wearing a green, military style-jacket and with his hair newly buzzed, Nofal recalled the days before his prison break last week. Prisoners had followed the street protests in Tunisia that led to its president fleeing the country, he said.
"Then God blessed us when the great Egyptian people rose up," he said. "When we heard what was happening, it encouraged us and the criminals and we broke the doors and escaped."
Nofal declined to say how he traveled from Cairo to Gaza, saying only he had help from "his brothers on the Egyptian side." He also refused to discuss his plans for the future.
He made his way though a smuggling tunnel under the Gaza-Egypt border on Saturday and was greeted by a crowd who fired celebratory shots in the air.
Nofal said Egypt never charged him with a crime, making him suspect that his imprisonment sought "to blackmail Hamas to show more flexibility in its political positions."
Egypt has long distrusted Hamas, which grew out of Egypt's own officially banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Hamas officials have declined to comment on the 12 days of Egyptian protests calling for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. But privately they say a new Egyptian regime could help lift the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on Gaza.