DAMASCUS (AFP) – Exiled Hamas political supremo Khaled Meshaal has said the Islamists want to agree a deal “as soon as possible” to exchange Palestinian prisoners for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.
“Hamas does not want to postpone negotiations on the prisoner exchange or demand new conditions, but we refuse to be blackmailed by Israel, which wants (to reduce) the number of Palestinian prisoners who should be freed,” Meshaal said in a speech late on Saturday.
“We have called for the release of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners (in exchange for Shalit) but Israel intends to release only 450,” he said at a meeting in Damascus marking the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Israel and Hamas have for several months held Egyptian-mediated talks on an exchange which would see the release of Shalit who was captured in June 2006 and has since been held in the Islamist-ruled Gaza Strip.
“We are committed to making the negotiations succeed as soon as possible because we want our prisoners to come home, but we reject Israeli blackmail over the number of prisoners,” Meshaal said.
He also appealed to Arab leaders including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, to help lift the Israeli blockade on Gaza.
Hamas seized control of the territory in June last year after the Islamists routed forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas. Israel has blockaded the impoverished territory since the Hamas takeover.