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Egypt says mediating Mideast prisoner swap talks | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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CAIRO (AP) – Egypt is still mediating talks between Israel and Hamas on a prisoner swap that would include the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit, a government official said Thursday.

Both Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers said earlier this week that talks aimed at freeing Schalit in exchange for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners were not over, despite the public breakdown last week of the indirect, Egyptian-mediated contacts. However, there had not been any word until Thursday that contacts had been revived with some momentum.

A prisoner exchange is central to attempts to reach a more lasting truce after Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza ended on Jan. 18 and to help clear the way for reconstruction and humanitarian relief there. The assault against Hamas was intended to stop rocket fire on southern Israel, but sporadic violence has continued.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last week that excessive demands by Hamas prevented a deal and indicated he would turn the matter over to his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to be sworn in as the new prime minister next week.

Later, Olmert’s spokesman Mark Regev said attempts to win the release of Schalit had not stopped. The 22-year-old sergeant has been held by Hamas militants in Gaza since June 2006.

At a ceremony marking Schalit’s 1,000th day in captivity on Saturday, the soldier’s father, Noam, implored Olmert to use his remaining time in office to pursue his son’s release.

Olmert had offered to free 320 prisoners of the 450 Hamas was demanding. The militant group’s Syria-based deputy leader, Mousa Abu Marzouk, said on Monday that Israel was trying to change the list of prisoners and wanted to expel some of them from the Palestinian territories.

It wasn’t clear what compromises the two sides might be prepared to make in the renewed effort.

The government official from Egypt’s Interior Ministry who confirmed Thursday’s contacts spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. He gave no other details.

“Schalit will not see the light of day until our prisoners see it,” a Syria-based Hamas leader, Ali Baraka, said on Wednesday, according to Hamas’ Web site. “There are ongoing communications and discussions conducted by the Egyptian mediators which have not been cut off and we hope that the Israelis will respond to our requests,” he said.

In a parallel set of Egyptian-mediated talks, Hamas is trying to reconcile with its rivals in the Fatah faction led by Western-backed President Mahmoud Abbas. The divide goes back to Hamas’ violent expulsion of Fatah forces from Gaza in June 2007.

A power-sharing agreement between the two sides could help persuade Israel to ease its blockade of the Gaza Strip and allow more aid into the impoverished coastal territory.