- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

1:10 p.m.

JERUSALEM — Israel today massed troops along the Gaza Strip border in preparation for what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said would be a “broad and ongoing” operation against Palestinian militants following the abduction of an Israeli soldier.

Three Palestinian groups purporting to hold the soldier demanded the release from Israeli prisons of women and those under age 18. A spokesman for one of the groups said the message was authentic.

Israel said it will not negotiate with the captors of Cpl. Gilad Shalit.

“The release of our hostage must be unconditional and immediate,” Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said.

Israeli and Palestinian officials worked diplomatic channels for the release of Cpl. Shalit, a dual French-Israeli citizen who was seized Sunday in a cross-border raid by Hamas-linked militants.

Speaking to a tourism conference in Jerusalem, Mr. Olmert said Israel’s patience was wearing thin and that he held the entire Palestinian leadership responsible for Cpl. Shalit’s safety.

“I gave the orders to our military commanders to prepare the army for a broad and ongoing military operation to strike the terrorist leaders and all those involved,” he said. “It should be clear. There will be immunity for no one.”

Israel was not expected to begin a large operation as long as there was a chance of bringing the soldier home, defense officials said. However, they said a limited operation — either a rescue attempt or a maneuver to put pressure on the Hamas-led Palestinian government — could begin much sooner.

Cpl. Shalit’s father said he had been told the soldier was wounded, but apparently not seriously.

The statement demanding the release of young and female inmates was signed by the military wing of Hamas and two offshoots of the small Popular Resistance Committees, which have strong links to Hamas.

Abu Mujahid, a spokesman for the PRC, confirmed the authenticity of the statement from the Saladin Brigade, the Army of Islam and Hamas’ military wing.

Wasfi Kibha, the Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs, said Israel holds 150 women and 360 children younger than 16. Mr. Kibha did not immediately have statistics for prisoners between 16 and 18.

Palestinian militants previously have tried to use captured soldiers to win the release of radicals.

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