07/03/2006, 00.00
ISRAEL – PALESTINE
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Israeli soldier's fate hanging on ultimatum, diplomacy and military pressure

The kidnappers give the Israeli government till tomorrow. The Egyptian delegation mediating the release has called on them to give an answer by tonight. Russia says it wants to work for the soldier's release.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit's fate seems to hang on a balance that includes the kidnappers' ultimatum, the Egyptian delegation's attempt at mediation and Russia's offer to intervene to favour his release, this as Egyptian secret service agents claim to have met him and news report suggest the kidnappers might accept a delay in the release of Palestinian inmates in exchange for freeing the Israeli prisoner who has been captive in Gaza for eight days now.

Israel's press has given large coverage to the ultimatum, which is set to end 6 am tomorrow. The kidnappers demand the release of more than a thousand prisoners held in Israel, women and children first. Otherwise, "we will consider the current file of the solider to be closed . . . and then the enemy must bear all the consequences of the future results", according to a statement issued by the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' armed wing, the Popular Resistance Committees and the little-known Islamic Army, who are thought to be holding the soldier.

In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has asked his ministers to refrain from making any comments, at least until the ultimatum is not fully vetted.

Olmert yesterday said that Israel will "not entertain blackmail" but the Israeli press reports that the army is not opposed to secret talks that might lead to the release of Palestinian prisoners not actively involved in attacks.

On the diplomatic front, the Israeli government acknowledged Russia's commitment to use all available channels to assist in seeing its soldier freed.

"The most important thing right now is to achieve the release of the captive," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after meeting his Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni. For her part, Ms Livni said Israel believed Russia's role "can be very important" in the Middle East.

Yona Metzger, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, also left for Moscow to attend an inter-faith meeting where he will seek support to solve the crisis.

Also on the diplomatic front, pan-Arab daily al-Hayat reports that according to Egyptian intelligence sources Egypt has given Hamas an ultimatum until this evening for an answer on its proposals "otherwise Egypt will suspend the mediation".

The same sources said they met the kidnapped Israeli soldier who was treated by a Palestinian doctor after suffering three gunshot wounds at the time of his capture.

Meantime Israel's military pressure on Gaza continues. The Israeli army penetrated Palestinian territory in the northern Strip near Beit Hanun by a few hundred metres. In the ensuing gun battle two Palestinian militants died.

The humanitarian situation in Gaza remains precarious. Palestinian lawmakers not arrested by Israel met today appealing to the international community to help Gaza's civilian population, which is "victim to unjust collective punishment".

Tel Aviv's goals seem to go beyond freeing the captured corporal. "We will keep up the pressure until the soldier Gilad Shalit is unconditionally freed and the rocket fire stops," Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon said.

According to some analysts, continued launching al-Qassem rockets against Israel from Gaza following Israeli withdrawal is jeopardising in the eyes of Israeli public opinion Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan to pull out from the occupied West Bank.

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