Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Efforts to free Israeli soldier progress

Israel is reviewing the names of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners that Gaza militants want released in exchange for a captured Israeli soldier, security officials said Sunday, signaling a possible breakthrough in efforts to win the young man's freedom.

However, both Israeli and Palestinian officials said a deal would still take some time.

Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 20, was captured last June by militants linked to the Islamic militant Hamas group who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip and attacked an army post. He has not been seen or heard from since then, but Israeli officials believe he is alive.

The militants holding Shalit have repeatedly demanded a large-scale release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel in exchange for the soldier. After months of deadlock, officials on both sides confirmed Saturday that the Palestinians had submitted a list through Egyptian mediators.

An Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said Sunday that the Shin Bet security service was reviewing the list and would soon give recommendations to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"It's true that the Palestinian side presented a list of names, but that doesn't mean that the Israeli side accepted it," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, an aide to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

"I would be very wary ... because there is still a long way to go," Cabinet Minister Yitzhak Herzog told Army Radio.

Israel considers Shalit's release a precondition for any serious progress in peace talks with the Palestinians. A prisoner exchange also could lead to wider acceptance of the new Palestinian government, a coalition of the moderate Fatah party and Hamas.

Abbas, who belongs to the Fatah party, predicted last week that Shalit would be freed soon. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas has also said he would like to see the issue resolved quickly, though he says he has no control over the captors.

Reports varied on the size of the list. A senior Palestinian official said it contained around 350 names, while Israeli newspapers said the Palestinians were demanding the release of as many as 1,300 prisoners, including some "with blood on their hands," a reference to those involved in attacks on Israelis.

Israel currently detains some 9,300 Palestinian prisoners on security grounds, one of the highest totals in nearly 40 years of its military occupation.

The Maariv daily said the list included Ahmed Saadat, the local leader of the radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Marwan Barghouti, a senior Fatah leader serving five life sentences for his role in the killings of four Israelis and a Greek monk.

Olmert has said Barghouti's release is "not on the agenda." But two senior allies of the prime minister recently said Barghouti should be freed to counter the growing influence of Hamas. Though Israel has repeatedly refused to free him, Barghouti is considered the Palestinians' top choice for a successor to Abbas.

Maariv quoted unidentified Israeli officials as saying "murderers" would not be freed, but Israel would be more flexible than in the past. For instance, Israel may consider releasing prisoners accused of minor involvement in attacks.

One security official told the newspaper that while the current list is unacceptable, it could be a basis for negotiations. The report said a special ministerial committee would discuss the names, and the Cabinet would have to approval the final release.

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