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Hamas excludes soldier Shalit from Gaza truce deal

Latest update : 2008-05-13

The Islamist militant group said on Tuesday that the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured nearly two years ago, would be considered only as part of a prisoner swap agreement.

The Islamist Hamas movement insisted on Tuesday that it will not agree to Israeli demands that it free a soldier held captive for almost two years as part of a proposed Gaza truce.

"Whoever thinks that the Shalit issue will be settled for free as part of the period of calm is completely wrong," senior Hamas leader Mahmud al-Zahar said in a speech in Gaza City, referring to Corporal Gilad Shalit, seized in a deadly cross-border raid from Gaza in June 2006.

"The issue of a prisoner exchange is completely separate from the period of calm," he added, speaking at an event to mark the 60th anniversary of what Palestinians call the Naqba, or catastrophe -- the mass exodus of refugees at the creation of the Jewish state.

Israel has demanded progress towards the release of Shalit as a condition for its acceptance of Egyptian proposals for a Gaza truce that have already received the backing of 12 Palestinian factions including Hamas.

The Islamist group, which is holding the Israeli soldier, has been demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinians from Israeli jails in return for freeing its captive but separate Egyptian-brokered negotiations on the details of a swap have made little headway.

"If there were another way to free these prisoners, we would welcome it," Zahar said, referring to the more than 11,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who has been acting as go-between in the negotiations as Israel refuses any direct contacts with organisations it regards as terror groups, presented the ceasefire proposals to Israeli leaders on Monday.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked Suleiman to tell Gaza militants any truce would be conditional upon progress being made towards freeing Shalit and a halt to what he says is rampant arms smuggling from Egypt's Sinai peninsula.

Egyptian authorities uncovered three tunnels excavated under the Gaza border on Tuesday but a security official told AFP that the only goods seized in them was a large consignment of toys.

Israel has kept the impoverished territory under virtual siege since Hamas seized control from forces loyal to moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas last June.

Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing -- Gaza's only one that bypasses Israel -- on Saturday to allow in sick or wounded Palestinians in need of specialist medical treatment

But it resealed it on Tuesday after allowing 1,433 Palestinians across, a security official said.

In the south Gaza city of Khan Yunis, Israel launched an air strike against a group of militants, killing a Hamas fighter and wounding three others, Palestinian medics and witnesses said.

The army confirmed the raid and said the men had been firing rockets.

The air strike came less than 24 hours after a rocket fired from Gaza slammed into a house near the border and killed a 70-year-old woman -- the 15th Israeli to be killed by such rocket fire since 2000.

That attack was claimed by the Islamic Jihad movement, which has refused to sign the proposed Gaza truce but has said it would not stand in the way of its implementation.

Both Gaza militants and Israel issued thinly-veiled threats on Tuesday.

"If Israel does not accept a period of calm, then we will defend ourselves and nobody today can blame the resistance," senior Islamic Jihad leader Mohammed al-Hindi said at the same Gaza event at which Zahar spoke.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak warned the present situation "cannot continue."

"We know this and the other side knows this as well. And whoever is responsible will pay the price," he said.

Israel has carried out near-daily raids on Gaza in a bid to halt the rocket attacks as its senior leaders have mulled a full-scale ground offensive aimed at overthrowing Hamas.

Since Israel and the Palestinian leadership formally revived peace negotiations at a US-hosted conference in November, at least 463 people have been killed, the majority of them Gaza militants, according to an AFP count.

Date created : 2008-05-13