Kidnappers Blame Israel for Impasse in Shalit Hostage Talks

GAZA - Negotiations on a prisoner exchange that would free abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit have been halted, and Israel is to blame for the impasse, spokesmen for the groups who kidnapped Shalit charged yesterday.

Abu Obaydeh, a spokesman for Hamas' military wing, told Haaretz that Israel had withdrawn its consent to certain elements of an emerging agreement that it had previously accepted, and that is why the talks were halted. Among other things, he said, Israel is refusing to allow the Palestinian organizations to decide which prisoners from their ranks Israel should release as part of the exchange; instead, it insists it decide which prisoners to free.

Abu Mujhad, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees - which carried out the kidnapping together with Hamas - offered a slightly different nuance: He said that the negotiations had slowed rather than stopped completely. However, he also blamed Israel and cited its refusal to allow the Palestinians to draw up the list of the prisoners to be freed. In addition, he said, Israel is refusing to release Palestinian prisoners simultaneously with Shalit; it wants Shalit freed first.

Abu Mujhad added that Shalit is alive and being well treated.

Khaled Meshal, head of Hamas' political bureau, took the hardest line: He charged that Israel rejects the idea of a deal over Shalit in principle, even though it is talking with several European mediators.

Roni Singer-Heruti adds:

Meanwhile, the families of the two IDF soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in a cross-border raid in July urged Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday to do more to ensure their release.

Relatives of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev made the remarks at a meeting with Defense Minister Amir Peretz, IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and Major General (reserve) Doron Almog.

The meeting followed Almog's presentation of the findings of an IDF committee investigating the abduction, which he headed. At a briefing on Sunday, Almog said that the soldiers' reconnaissance mission set out on the morning of the kidnapping "almost as if [they were] on a hike, not a military mission." The families were taken aback by this and similar comments and requested that he clarify what he meant by the statements.

Shlomo Goldwasser, Ehud's father, said that at the meeting, Peretz, Halutz and Almog all assured him that on the day of the kidnapping, Regev and Goldwasser behaved "just as they had been instructed by their commanders, just as the rest of the soldiers in their division did."

He added that the families received no new information on the status of their sons during the meeting.

The families plan to travel to Europe at the end of the month in an effort to drum up public support for the soldiers' return.