- The Washington Times - Monday, July 3, 2006

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinian militants holding an Israeli soldier today gave Israel less than 24 hours to start releasing 1,500 Palestinian prisoners and implied the soldier would die if Israel did not comply. Israel said it would not negotiate.

Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Syria that he held that country responsible for the fate of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, who was captured June 25 in a cross-border raid by Hamas’ military wing and two allied groups, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Army of Islam.

The three militant groups that seized Cpl. Shalit said that if Israel doesn’t comply with the militants’ demands, “we will consider the soldier’s case to be closed,” an apparent reference to killing him, “and then the enemy must bear all the consequences of the future results.”

“We give the Zionist enemy until 6 tomorrow morning, Tuesday, July 4 (11 p.m. EDT today)” the groups said in a statement posted on the Web site of the ruling Hamas party’s military wing and faxed to news agencies.

The Israeli government said it would not cave in to extortion.

“There will be no negotiations to release prisoners,” the prime minister’s office said in a statement that held the Palestinians’ ruling Hamas party responsible for Cpl. Shalit’s safe return.

However, Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, did not rule out talks for a prisoner swap.

“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 after leaving the Shalit family’s home in northern Israel.

Israel has swapped prisoners before to win the release of captured citizens and Israeli bodies in usually lopsided deals that have handed far more prisoners to the Palestinians.

Israel has sent tanks, troops, gunboats and aircraft to attack Gaza over the past week to press militants to free Cpl. Shalit. Intensive efforts to mediate his release, involving Egypt and other regional players, have not been successful.

There has been no sign of life from the soldier since his seizure and no concrete evidence of his condition, though Israeli officials have said they think he is alive.

Cpl. Shalit’s captors initially demanded the release of about 500 women and children held as prisoners in Israeli jails. They later raised their demands to include an additional 1,000 prisoners. Israel is holding about 9,000 Palestinians.

Hamas, which has killed hundreds of Israelis, has refused to renounce violence or recognize Israel since taking power in March. However, the Hamas government and Hamas leaders based in Syria have denied responsibility for the soldier’s capture.

Mr. Peretz nonetheless warned Damascus that he held it responsible for Cpl. Shalit’s fate.

“I suggest that [Syrian President] Bashar Assad, who is trying to operate with his eyes shut tight, open his eyes, because he is responsible,” Mr. Peretz cautioned.

Last week, Israeli aircraft buzzed Mr. Assad’s summer residence to try to pressure him to lean on Hamas to release Cpl. Shalit.

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