Hamas leader in exile Khaled Meshal is planning to finalize a prisoner swap deal for the release of abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit during a rare visit to Cairo this weekend, senior Palestinian sources told the Saudi daily Al-Watan on Friday.
Hamas spokesman Taher A-Nunu confirmed that Meshal was traveling to Cairo on Saturday for a round of talks with Egyptian officials, attended by the organization's top-brass from Gaza and Damascus.
According to the Al-Watan report, Meshal intends to use the visit to approve the clauses of the prisoner swap deal and sign off on a final draft.
No other sources could confirm the report. However, Hamas sources said on Saturday that Meshal was in Cairo to discuss internal Palestinian issues, and not to complete a deal for Shalit's release, Army Radio reported.
France's envoy to Israel on Friday met Shalit's parents to give them a letter on behalf of President Nicolas Sarkozy, pledging Paris' commitment to their son's release.
Besides the return of the Israeli soldier, whom Hamas abducted in 2006, the parties will also discuss reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. However, this track is seen as having few chances to succeed, making it likelier that the parties will focus on the prisoner deal.
The arrival of Meshal, who heads Hamas' political bureau from Damascus, is an unusual occurrence. He usually travels to Cairo only for crucial issues or the signing of contracts or deals. Meshal was supposed to visit Cairo last Tuesday, but his departure was delayed after his father passed away in Jordan.
Meshal's deputy, Mussa Abu Marzuk, has said that a German mediator facilitating the deal between Israel and Hamas has traveled 11 times to the region, and is "very earnest in his intention to bring about a deal."
Osama al-Mzainy, the Hamas official in charge of the Shalit affair, recently said that no quick agreement over the abducted soldier is in sight. Shalit has been held prisoner in the Gaza Strip since he was abducted by militants from the coastal territory in a 2006 cross-border raid.
Hamas, he added, has not backed down on any of its demands, including the release of 1,000 prisoners in total. The Hamas official's comments came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday that there had been no breakthrough in talks with Hamas over Shalit, and people should not expect a deal to be concluded in the coming days.
France pledges commitment to Shalit's release
French envoy Christophe Bigot told Aviva and Noam Shalit that the French president and government were maintaining close contact with all parties who could possibly have a positive influence on the matter.
The French envoy also said that France had been committed to securing Shalit's release from the very first day of the soldier's imprisonment, a stance which Bigot said president Sarkozy had expressed repeatedly in the past.
Bigot added that the French government had been updated with the latest developments in the prisoner exchange talks, and that officials had been in touch with Israeli officials, including chief Shalit negotiator Haggai Hadas.
In the letter presented to Shalit's parents, Sarkozy wrote that his "thoughts are with you and your son in a time when his intolerable captivity deprives him of his freedom for the last three years."
"Know that France has not forgotten Gilad and will continue to tirelessly strive, in cooperation with the Israeli government, to advance his release," the French president added.
Shalit holds dual Israeli and French citizenship.
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