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The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, reiterated on Wednesday that securing the release of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity was of the utmost importance to Israel.

"Bringing back Gilad Shalit is a national mission, and both covert and overt actions are being carried out to bring him back," Ashkenazi told a gathering in Ashdod.

Ashkenazi is in favor of a deal with Hamas under which hundreds of convicted Palestinian terrorists would be released in exchange for Shalit; he recently clashed with Netanyahu's political adviser Uzi Arad, who opposes the swap.

The IDF chief added: "As the chief of staff, I am responsible for every soldier. I feel obliged to bring him back home; naturally it's better to keep a discussion of the details to closed forums. But I hope that the mission will be completed."

His comments came shortly after a senior Hamas official said he expected the Islamist group to send a delegation from Gaza to Damascus by Thursday to discuss with exiled leaders Israel's response to the deal for Shalit, who was abducted by Gaza militants in a June 2006 cross-border raid.

Gaza strongman Mahmoud al-Zahar on Wednesday said Hamas had received Israel's response from the German mediator and that it needed several days to review it, Israel Radio reported.

Zahar added that the mediator has left Gaza and is en route back to Germany.

The forum of seven top Israeli cabinet ministers, who held a series of meetings on the matter Sunday and Monday, gave the green light to continue with the mediation efforts, but attached certain conditions.

Israel insisting at least 100 prisoners be exiled

At the center of Israel's demands is an insistence that between 100 and 130 of the Palestinian prisoners who are to be released in exchange - individuals convicted of direct responsibility for the deaths of Israelis - will be expelled to the Gaza Strip or abroad and barred from returning to the West Bank.

After the ministers' meeting, Israel gave the German mediator of the deal its response to the mediator's proposal, including Jerusalem's demands regarding the prohibition against returning to the West Bank for certain Palestinian prisoners following their release.

Senior Hamas leaders are expected to meet, probably in Damascus, within a few days to discuss the proposal, and a deal is likely to take several days or even weeks.

Meanwhile, a report on Wednesday in the Arab daily Al-Hayat said the two sides have agreed on the release of 443 out of 450 of the prisoners demanded by Hamas.

According to the report, the seven prisoners Israel refuses to release are Tanzim chief Marwan Barghouti, terror mastermind Abdullah Barghouti, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine secretary-general Ahmed Sa'adat and four others.

Another report on Wednesday said Hamas has agreed to have 123 of the prisoners released to places other than the West Bank, according to Palestinian sources quoted in the Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqabal.

Al-Mustaqabal said 97 of those prisoners would be transferred to Gaza, 20 exiled to Qatar and 6 exiled to countries in Europe willing to absorb them.

Hamas had agreed that some prisoners be exiled but wanted them to be able to choose their destinations, officials said.