Kidnappers give Israel deadline to release prisoners

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The Independent Online

The war of nerves over the fate of the Israeli soldier seized by Palestinian militants escalated yesterday after the groups holding him gave Israel until 6am this morning to agree to prisoner releases or face unspecified "consequences".

The ultimatum from the three factions who abducted Cpl Gilad Shalit more than a week ago was swiftly rejected by Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, who ruled out negotiations on prisoner releases and said the Palestinian Authority would bear "full responsibility" for the well being of 19-year-old soldier.

The statement from the factions - including members of Hamas's military wing and two offshoots of the Popular Resistance Committees - stopped short of explicitly threatening the life of Cpl Shalit. But it declared: "If the enemy does not agree to our humanitarian demands ... we will regard this case as closed."

Mr Olmert's office, linking the abduction and the ultimatum directly with the Hamas cabinet, declared: "The government of Israel will not yield to the extortion of the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by murderous terrorist organisations."

The exchanges presaged a deepening of the crisis as Israeli tanks and bulldozers crossed the border into the eastern edges of this northern Gaza town in what the army said was a "pinpoint operation" to locate tunnels and explosives. It was quick to say that this was not yet the major ground force operation that has been contemplated since last week.

At least one Palestinian militant was killed in an open field at Beit Hanoun yesterday. The army confirmed that an aerial missile attack had hit one of a group carrying anti-tank weapons near Israeli troops. A unit of masked militants carrying AK-47s moved in formation to join mourners at the funeral tent of the man confirmed as dead, Abdel Karim Dourraj, 30.

After reports in the Israeli media suggesting that some high-ranking Israeli officers were in favour of releasing some Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Cpl Shalit being handed over alive and safe, Dan Halutz, the IDF's chief of staff, sounded a somewhat more tentative note than Mr Olmert's office.

After visiting the corporal's family, General Halutz refrained from answering with a direct negative when asked by reporters if Israel should negotiate. "We, and by that I mean the political and military echelons, will consider all that there is to be considered, then reach conclusions and act on them," he said.

Noam Shalit, the abducted corporal's father, yesterday sounded a criticial note about the army's operation, saying it was "delusional" that Israel should re-establish its "deterrence" at the expense of his son. While saying he would await the inquiryinto the raid in which his son was seized, he told Channel Ten: "Israel should have done that before the attack, when there was intelligence information on tunnels being dug in the region."

Saying it was getting "harder and harder to cope" Mr Shalit added: "As the number one soldier in Israel, I asked the chief of staff to represent Gilad's interests, as a soldier sent by the army, as soldier to soldier, that he represent Gilad's interest to Israel and to the decision-making echelons."

Amir Peretz, Israel's Defence Minister, said Hamas's headquarters in Damascus, led by the Hamas's political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal, "is the main address that bears responsibility" for Cpl Shalit's abduction, adding: "I suggest to [Syrian President] Bashar Assad, who is trying to turn a blind eye, that he open his eyes, as the responsibility is at his doorstep."

The dead militant in Beit Hanoun was a bodyguard for Atef Adwan, the minister responsible for refugee issues, but local residents said he had been on a "mission" unconnected with his bodyguard duties.

Prominent Fatah parliamentarians also made it clear yesterday they were not seeking to replace the Hamas government with a new coalition government - as presaged by last week's national unity deal between the factions - while the present crisis lasted.