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Hamas confirmed for the first time yesterday that 200 to 300 members of its military wing were killed during Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip at the end of 2008.

Israel launched Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 in an effort to curb missile fire from the Palestinian territory into Israel's southern communities. Immediately following the operation, Hamas reported that fewer than 50 of its men had been killed.

Hamas Interior Minister Fathi Hamad, who confirmed the figures in an interview with the London-based Arabic language daily Al-Hayat, said the so-called "police officers" who were killed during the first day of the operation were actually 250 Hamas fighters, and that 150 additional "security personnel" were also killed.

These figures were consistent with the numbers initially reported by the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman immediately following the operation, which Hamas denied.

Hamad also addressed the ongoing negotiations over the release of Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit, saying that Israel wants a prisoner exchange deal "at the lowest possible price" but that eventually it will come around and pay what Hamas is demanding.

Hamad also denied allegations that Al-Qaida operatives were active in Gaza.

"We have closed all loopholes, and we do not wish to deal with Al-Qaida," Hamad told the paper. "We are moderates and we value that, we do not like extremists or fanatics. We don't need jihad fighters or weapons ... whoever wants to support us sends us money," Hamad added.