Israeli corpral 'could be freed' after Mecca deal

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The Independent Online

The release of Gilad Shalit, the 19-year-old Israeli corporal seized by militants in Gaza in June, is foreshadowed in an unpublicised agreement reached in Mecca this week, according to a European diplomatic source.

If implemented, such an agreement could markedly improve the highly uncertain prospects of a positive international response to Thursday night's Hamas-Fatah deal on a coalition government.

Cpl Shalit's release has several times been reported to be imminent during the mainly Egyptian-brokered negotiations on a prisoner exchange with Israel, only for the hopes for such an exchange to evaporate.

But the reports of still-confidential discussions on his release during the Saudi-convened talks in Mecca are being taken seriously by European diplomats. And they coincide with a separate report in Haaretz newspaper yesterday quoting Israeli "security sources" saying that the coalition deal could lead to Cpl Shalit's release.

The corporal's seizure by Hamas and other militants in a raid in which two other soldiers on the Israeli side of the border with southern Gaza were killed, was the trigger for a protracted military operation by Israeli forces in Gaza, which only ended with a still-fragile ceasefire in November.

The Haaretz report quoted its sources as warning that tough negotiations would still be needed on the numbers and types of Palestinian prisoners that would be exchanged for Cpl Shalit. But the sources suggested that Hamas believed Cpl Shalit's release would "deflect" international attention away from its "rigid diplomatic stance."

Whether and how far that stance was modified in Mecca was being discussed intensively in and between Western capitals yesterday. Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French Foreign Minister, was the most publicly expansive, even suggesting that agreement by Hamas to "respect" previous Palestinian agreements was a welcome step towards recognition of Israel.

Other governments are likely to be much more cautious given reports that the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, wanted Hamas to "commit" to such agreements. Margaret Beckett, the British Foreign Secretary, yesterday welcomed the "ongoing efforts to end the violence" but said Britain would "need to study these proposals carefully and discuss them with our European and other partners".

Israeli officials, who will seek to co-ordinate their response with Western governments, indicated there would be no formal response before Sunday's weekly Cabinet meeting.

Tom Casey, the US Department spokesman, said: "We still haven't seen enough of the details on this to give you an answer."