Mubarak: Islamist group gives “conditional approval for release
GAZA: Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza on Friday, setting ablaze the Interior Ministry offices of the Hamas-led Palestinian government in a widening military effort to secure the release of a captured soldier. President Hosni Mubarak said in a newspaper interview that the Hamas Islamist group had given conditional approval for the release of 19-year-old Corporal Gilad Shalit, who was captured in a cross-border raid on Sunday.
Egyptian contacts with several Hamas leaders resulted in preliminary, positive results in the shape of a conditional agreement to hand over the Israeli soldier as soon as possible to avoid an escalation, said Mubarak. But while Israel held off a threatened ground attack into northern Gaza to give Egyptian mediation time and under international pressure to avoid killing civilians, there was no suggestion the Jewish state would agree to any conditions. The factions that captured Shalit, including the armed wing of Hamas, demand the release of Palestinian prisoners even for information on whether he is alive or dead. Israeli warplanes roared over Gaza in darkness, striking more than 20 targets. One missile hit the office of Hamas Interior Minister Saeed Seyam, setting the building ablaze. Seyam was not there at the time. The army said it was used to plan attacks on Israel. Planes also struck an office of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, part of more moderate President Mahmoud Abbas Fatah group, as well as roads and areas used to fire rockets at Israel. An Islamic Jihad militant was killed, the first fatality from the offensive. The army said he was part of a rocket squad. Israel holds Hamas responsible for Shalit s safe return though the government says it played no role in his abduction. Mubarak said in an interview with Egypt s Al Ahram daily that Hamas leaders had told him they had given approval to hand over the soldier in order to avoid an escalation, but he did not specify what conditions they had set. He also said Israel had not yet agreed. Tzachi Hanegbi, a senior member of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert s Kadima party, told Army Radio: Israel will not give in to terrorist blackmail and will not enter into negotiations to release murderers in Israeli prisons. Israel seized dozens of Hamas cabinet members and lawmakers in the West Bank on Thursday in what the Islamist group called an attempt to topple its government. Hamas, sworn to destroying Israel, is already struggling under a U.S.-led aid embargo. We swear to God that even if we are all crushed to death, we will never recognize Israel and we will never abandon our rights, Hamas lawmaker Mushir Al-Masri told thousands of supporters in Gaza City, as Israeli warplanes screamed overhead. Every day, demonstrators in Gaza urge militants not to hand over Shalit unless Israel frees Palestinian prisoners in return. Israeli troops entered southern Gaza on Wednesday in their biggest raid since pulling out of the strip last summer, but they delayed a threatened push into northern Gaza, an area often used by militants for firing rockets into Israel. Senior diplomatic sources said Israel had put the large-scale assault on hold to allow more time for the Egyptian mediation. Israeli media said Olmert also wanted time to plan a more extensive operation. Israel is under international pressure to avoid the civilian casualties that could result from an offensive into the alleyways of the densely populated Gaza Strip, home to 1.4 million Palestinians. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other Group of Eight foreign ministers urged Israel on Thursday to show restraint in Gaza, where Israeli strikes have knocked out bridges, water systems and a major power transformer. Agencies