The Hamas official in charge of negotiations over abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit said Sunday that there was no truth in the recent flurry of reports over a breakthrough in the talks.
Osama Muzeini said there are no serious talks on the matter, and that the last Israeli proposal for a deal to secure the soldier's release was made at the end of former prime minister Ehud Olmert's tenure.
European officials and Arab sources have been recently quoted as saying that Shalit will be moved to Egypt within a few days as part of a deal with Hamas, the Islamist militant group holding him.
Speaking to a Hamas-linked Web site, Muzeini added that under Olmert, Israel agreed to release 325 Palestinians out of a list of 450 requested by Hamas in return for Shalit. Israel demanded that 125 of those it agreed to free be resettled outside of the West Bank, he said.
According to Muzeini, those Israel refused to release were "heavies," Palestinians who had been given life sentences. He said Israel had agreed to free a further 550 prisoners two months after the initial swap; those Palestinians would be serving lesser sentences between five and seven years.
"The organization has clarified to European diplomats that Israel can only veto ten names on the list of 450, and no more than this," he said.
Muzeini noted that the Hamas committee running the talks, which is made up of the Islamist group's military wing, determines the makeup of the list. The Hamas official added that Israel has no means of freeing the abducted soldier other than through negotiations.
He revealed that on the eve of the last round of talks, the head of Hamas' military wing, Ahmed Jabri, was told by Egyptian mediators that Israel agreed to all of the group's demands. But when Jabri arrived in Cairo to close the deal, Muzeini said, he discovered this was not the case.
Barak blasts 'damaging' reports on Shalit deal
Defense Minster Ehud Barak, meanwhile, on Sunday criticized the reports of a breakthrough in the talks as "damaging."
"The reports on the release of Shalit are incorrect and even damaging," said Barak at the weekly cabinet meeting.
Following Barak's comments, an Egyptian source involved in the negotiations told Haaretz Sunday that while the efforts to secure Shalit's release are continuing, it is too soon to speak of Shalit's imminent release.
"You need to listen to your Defense Minister," he said.
Senior Israeli political sources made similar denials over the weekend. "There is no substantive progress on the matter," one of the sources said.
However, a senior Israeli official acknowledged Saturday that, "Egypt has presented us with a plan and we are now discussing it."
Israel Defense Forces corporal Shalit was kidnapped on June 25, 2006, in a cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip that left two of his comrades dead.
The issue of the soldier's release is one of the parts of an Egyptian proposal for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip being mediated, but it is not central to the deal.
A senior political source reiterated that there has been no progress at this stage on the Shalit case, but expressed the hope that a new cease-fire formula may further a deal.
"There is linkage between the issues," the sources said. "The chances for his release in the near future are not high but in view of the new cease-fire plan, the chances are better than they used to be."
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