Intelligence chief to hold Middle East prisoner swap talks

The Egyptian official negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap plans to deliver to Israel today a Hamas demand that Israel free 1,400 detainees in exchange for a soldier held since June, Palestinian officials said.

The Egyptian official negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swap plans to deliver to Israel today a Hamas demand that Israel free 1,400 detainees in exchange for a soldier held since June, Palestinian officials said.

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman was to meet separately with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz.

Olmert said earlier this week Israel planed to release many Palestinian prisoners, including those serving long sentences, once the Israeli soldier, Cpl Gilad Shalit, is freed.

Palestinian officials have repeatedly said a deal is close, but Israeli defence officials say the negotiations are far from over.

Israel, which has carried out lopsided prisoner swaps in the past, is concerned that an exchange will be widely seen as a victory for Hamas, the Islamic militant group that rules the Palestinian Authority, and undermine the prestige of moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the rival Fatah Party.

Hamas demands the release of 1,400 prisoners in three stages.

In the first phase, Hamas-allied militants would free Shalit and hand him to the Egyptians. Israel holds more than 9,000 Palestinian prisoners.

At the same time, Israel would free women prisoners and minors in its custody. Among those Hamas wants freed are Hamas prisoners serving long sentences and Marwan Barghouti, a leader of Abbas’ Fatah.

Abu Mujahed, a spokesman for the Hamas-affiliated Popular Resistance Committees, one of three militant groups involved in Shalit’s capture, said there was no agreement with Israel on the number of Palestinian prisoners to be freed or a timetable for the swap. But he confirmed the militant groups want 1,400 prisoners released, including 400 women and minors.

Abu Mujahed said Hamas has not yet presented a list with names of prisoners it wants freed.

Earlier this week, a senior Israeli Defence Ministry official, Amos Gilad, said there was progress in the talks, but suggested Hamas’ demands were not acceptable to Israel.

Hamas “has a tendency to demand prices that are very high, to establish its position and to weaken all the moderate forces,” Gilad said.

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