Hamas Says Deal is Near for Prisoner Exchange to Free Israeli Soldier

A Hamas official claimed progress in contacts for a deal to free a captured Israeli soldier while news reports Sunday said Israel would release about 450 Palestinian prisoners. But both sides said nothing was final.

Hamas-linked gunmen captured Cpl. Gilad Shalit in a cross-border raid on an Israeli army post on June 25. Two other soldiers were killed.

The raid set off five months of violence in Gaza, and with the soldier in captivity, Israel has refused to discuss other issues with the Palestinians.

Israeli media said in the first stage, Hamas would provide a video recording showing that the soldier is alive — the first such indication since the capture — and Israel would free a small number of prisoners.

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Then, according to the reports, Israel would release 450 prisoners in exchange for the soldier, who would be handed over to Egyptian officials and transferred to Israel. Egypt has been mediating between Israel and Hamas.

A main sticking point would be the reported Hamas insistence on picking the prisoners to be freed, among some 8,000 held by Israel. With few exceptions, Israel has refused to free Palestinians who played active parts in attacks that killed Israelis.

Some of the reports said there would be a third phase in which Israel would release additional prisoners.

On Sunday evening, the Palestinian Ramattan news agency reported that the deal would be announced at a Thursday summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But Israeli and Palestinian officials cast doubt on the prospects.

Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan told Associated Press Television there has been progress in the contacts.

"We expect a declaration of a complete deal of releasing Palestinian prisoners for the imprisoned Zionist soldier soon. But this all depends on the Israeli side," he said. "We hope that the results of this deal will be soon, God willing."

However, Israeli officials denied that there was significant progress. They also said no videotape of the soldier has been delivered. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

Defense Minister Amir Peretz gave no indication that a deal was near.

"We are doing all we can, publicly and privately, to accomplish that," he said.

Israel refuses to deal directly with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organization because of its record of dozens of homicide bombing attacks over the last decade, killing hundreds.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is close to moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, also denied the report of a breakthrough.

"I wouldn't say that no progress has been made at all, but the deal is still far away," he told the AP, counseling patience. "They are still far away from reaching an exact number of prisoners, and we urge everybody not to interfere with the Egyptians' work."

In the six months since the soldier was captured, there have been numerous claims of progress and breakthroughs in contacts toward a prisoner exchange, but none have panned out.

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