Sun, Jul 02, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Militants demand exchange for soldier

UNCONDITIONAL Israel rejected three Palestinian militant groups' demand that it release 1,000 prisoners in exchange for information on Corporal Gilad Shalit

AP , GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP

A Palestinian boy wearing a green bandana in support of the ruling Hamas party looks on at the Jabalia refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, which was hit overnight by Israeli air strikes on Friday.

PHOTO: AFP

Palestinian militants holding an Israeli soldier issued a new set of demands yesterday, calling for the release of 1,000 prisoners and a halt to Israel's military offensive in Gaza, in a sign that diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff were making little progress.

Israel rejected the demands.

"The Israeli position is that he should be released immediately and unconditionally," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

The militants, linked to the Palestinians' ruling Hamas party, issued their latest demands as Israel kept up its military pressure. Aircraft strikes pounded Gaza for a fourth straight night, and artillery from tanks and gunboats bombarded northern and southern Gaza yesterday morning.

There were no reports of casualties.

Concerned about the rising tensions, the UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on Friday.

The Palestinians asked the UN's most powerful body to condemn Israel's actions and order a halt to the Israeli offensive. But no resolution was circulated, apparently because of opposition by the US, Israel's closest ally.

The new call for a prisoner swap was issued by Hamas' military wing and two smaller militant groups with ties to Hamas -- the Popular Resistance Committees and the Army of Islam. The three groups have claimed responsibility for Sunday's abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid.

In a joint statement, the militants condemned Israel for launching a military operation while diplomatic efforts were continuing. Egyptian mediators have been trying to find a resolution for days.

"Despite the efforts of the mediators, who quietly tried to quickly resolve this humanitarian case, the enemy and its political leadership is still under the influence of their military and security commanders, who know nothing but the language of invasion, destruction and killing,'' it said.

The militants called for the release of 1,000 prisoners, including non-Palestinian Muslims and Arabs held by Israel. The gesture appeared to be aimed at boosting support in the broader Arab world.

The statement repeated a demand made earlier this week for the release of all Palestinian women and minors held in Israeli prisons -- an estimated 500 people -- in exchange for information about Shalit.

As with its earlier demand, yesterday's statement did not promise to release the soldier or provide any information about his condition.

Israel's Channel 1 TV, citing a senior Israeli security official, reported on Friday that a Palestinian doctor treated Shalit for minor shoulder and stomach wounds, and that the soldier was in good condition.

Israel Radio said the doctor's visit took place on Thursday.

The fate of the prisoners held by Israel is an emotional issue in Palestinian society. Palestinian leaders routinely call for their release, and the militants' calls for a prisoner swap has won widespread support among the general public.

Israel sent troops into southern Gaza on Wednesday -- the first major raid into the territory since Israeli soldiers pulled out last year after a 38-year occupation -- and began a wave of airstrikes across the coastal strip.

In addition to its clampdown in Gaza, it has detained eight Palestinian Cabinet ministers and in an unprecedented measure, revoked the Jerusalem residency rights of four senior Hamas officials.

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