Syria's Hamas Leaders Deny Role in Israeli Soldier's Abduction

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Hamas' leaders in Syria insist they have nothing to do with the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier and hold no influence over his captors. Still, they have been changing homes and stopped using cell phones because of Israeli threats to target them.

Israel has accused the Islamic terrorist group's top leader, Khaled Mashaal, of being the brains behind the June 25 kidnapping and indicated he was a possible target for assassination.

"We take the Israeli threats seriously, and we know the occupation will not pass up the opportunity to get the movement's leadership," Osama Hamdan, Hamas' representative in Lebanon, told The Associated Press on Sunday. "We have taken precautions."

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Since militants close to Hamas claimed responsibility for abducting 19-year-old Cpl. Gilad Shalit, attention has focused on what role was played by the Damascus-based political leadership of Hamas. What has added to the confusion is that Hamas now controls the Palestinian government.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, has called on Syrian President Bashar Assad to arrest Mashaal and close the militant group's office in the Syrian capital.

Hamas' political leaders have denied any role, saying that such attacks are planned by the group's military wing and that they have no influence or contact with its members. It's an argument Hamas has used since it began suicide attacks against Israel in the 1990s.

Yet Hamas officials admit several countries have contacted them as part of diplomatic efforts spearheaded by Egypt to win the soldier's release.

"We have a role because international parties get in touch with us," said Hamdan. "But we refer those parties to the people on the ground. We have no contact with those holding the prisoner."

A Palestinian official in Lebanon, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Hamas' political leadership lays broad guidelines — such as agreeing to a deal to defuse a crisis — but Shalit's captors would set the details for a settlement.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a political foe of Hamas, has said Egypt's efforts to mediate an end to the crisis were being hampered by confusion about who really has decision-making power on the Hamas side.

Hamdan disputed that assessment. He said negotiations had not borne any fruit because Israel rejected a deal in which Shalit would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners in Israel.

Egypt and Jordan urged Syria to use its influence with Hamas to help win Shalit's release. But Syria, according to Arab officials, said it could not do so while the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip continued.

In Cairo, an Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was talking to Assad, hoping he would persuade Hamas leaders to release the soldier. The officials said Egypt's chief of intelligence was talking directly to Mashaal.

Egypt proposed that the Israeli soldier be freed immediately and that in return Israel agree to release unspecified prisoners in the near future. But Hamdan said the militants wanted more than promises.

"The Palestinians have for years gotten guarantees that prisoners would be released but nothing would happen," he said.