Hamas refuses to trade arrested ministers

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The Independent Online

Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas Palestinian Prime Minister, has emerged from days of seclusion with a defiant message suggesting the faction would not trade its newly arrested politicians for the 19-year-old Israeli corporal abducted six days ago.

As the United Nations warned that the destruction of a power plant in Israeli air raids was posing an imminent humanitarian crisis, he said of the arrests of 63 ministers and parliamentarians on Thursday: "When they kidnapped the ministers they meant to hijack the government's position, but we say no positions will be hijacked, no governments will fall."

Mr Haniyeh was speaking several hours after an Israeli air missile attack all but destroyed the Gaza offices of the Interior Ministry. As artillery barrages directed at open ground in northern Gaza continued yesterday, another missile attacked a vehicle in the city said to be containing militants.

Witnesses said that three people had been wounded by the missile which exploded next to the car. The air and artillery offensive was intended to maintain pressure on the Palestinian leadership to secure the safe release of Cpl Galid Shalit after a ground advance into the northern town of Beit Hanoun was delayed, apparently to allow more time for diplomatic efforts to free him to take their course.

Israel's air force has struck more than 30 targets in Gaza in the past 24 hours, hitting roads, bridges and the strip's only power plant. The army has also fired hundreds of artillery shells.

The UN emergency co-ordinator Jan Egeland had said earlier that a severe humanitarian crisis was only three days away mainly because of the effect of power cuts on essential pumping equipment for water and sewerage equipment.

On Thursday, Israel destroyed all six transformers at the only power station in Gaza. More than 30 targets have been attacked in a series of Israeli air strikes in the past 48 hours.

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) spokesman Caspar Landolt said it was negotiating with Israel in an attempt to bring medical supplies, ambulances and food parcels into Gaza despite the sealing off of the Strip earlier in the week. Mr Landolt added: "There is also a need for fuel since the bombing of the power station."

The Israeli army was investigating a claim by Palestinian security officials that a soldier was shot and wounded in clashes in southern Gaza, where troops took over the disused Gaza International Airport on Wednesday.

While thousands of troops are massed along the Israel-Gaza border waiting for the go-ahead for a massive invasion into the crowded coastal area, the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, declared that Hamas militants had signed up to a "conditional deal" to release Cpl Shalit but that Israel had not yet accepted the terms.

Israeli officials said they did not know of such an agreement. But Tzahi Hanegbi, the chairman of the Knesset foreign affairs and defence committee, said: "The Prime Minister is managing the campaign while seeing all the balances, including the diplomatic one.

"He needs to see the big picture, and the big picture is that there is a meaning to sometimes waiting a half a day, or a day. You need to exhaust all options."

Mr Haniyeh said that he was in contact with Arab, Muslim and European leaders to try to resolve the crisis, "but this Israeli military escalation complicates matters and makes it more difficult".

He also accused Israel of using Cpl Shalit's abduction as a pretext for launching a major offensive aimed at bringing down his government.

"This total war is proof of a premeditated plan," he said. Mohammed Nazal, a Damascus-based member of the Hamas politburo, said that Israel was not serious about negotiating Cpl Shalit's release.

In the pre-dawn attack on the Interior Ministry, the fourth-floor office of the minister Said Siyam - a leading Hamas figure - was struck by a missile.

The ground floor office of Mr Siyam's bodyguard was also destroyed, while the first, second and third floors of the buildings - where passports and identity cards are printed - were left untouched. No casualties were reported in the attack.