Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - The kidnapping that sent the Israeli military back into the Gaza Strip in June appears to be nearing a negotiated solution.
In an interview published Tuesday in the Bahrain-based Akhbar Al Halij newspaper, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will be taken across the border into Egypt in preparation for a Palestinian prisoner swap with Israel. Egyptian media reports claimed on Monday that the transfer has already taken place.
The captured Israeli corporal reportedly will be freed in exchange for the release of between 500 and 800 Palestinians being held in Israeli jails. Arab media reports say the lopsided exchange will take place in three stages, with Shalit remaining under Egyptian control until the final stage is completed.
Citing the sensitivity of the topic, Israeli officials say they will not comment on the reports. However Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday that Shalit would have to be freed first by his captors before any Arab prisoners could be released.
Vice Premier Shimon Peres hinted in an interview broadcast over Army Radio Tuesday morning that negotiations with the Palestinians to secure Shalit's release may be nearing a climax.
The veteran Israeli leader said Olmert would begin peace negotiations with Abbas "the moment this issue is resolved." Peres added that the talks would be based on the White House-initiated road map peace plan, which has essentially remained on ice since it was hand-delivered to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by U.S. diplomats in April 2003. Olmert's office would neither confirm nor deny the deputy premier's remarks.
Israel's Channel Two news reported Monday evening that the Palestinian gunmen who kidnapped Gilad Shalit (a group that included Hamas members) have promised to issue a statement about his condition by Wednesday.
The captured soldier, who holds dual French-Israeli citizenship, was abducted on June 25th after he was wounded by armed Palestinian militants who sneaked into an Israeli army outpost from a tunnel that had been clandestinely dug under the Gaza border with Israel. Two IDF soldiers serving with Shalit were killed in the unprovoked attack.
Noam Shalit, the missing soldier's father, told Israel Radio that he was "skeptical" about media reports that his son was now in Egyptian hands. However, his comments came before P.A. leader Abbas was quoted as confirming that Gilad will be handed back to Israel via Egypt.
Israeli officials have quietly acknowledged for several weeks that the Egyptian government headed by President Hosni Mubarak is playing an important role in negotiations with Palestinian authorities for the kidnapped soldier's release.
Israeli military forces have been operating in the Gaza Strip since Shalit was captured in late June. The P.A. Health Ministry said last week that 225 Palestinians had been killed by IDF forces through the end of August, with another 900 wounded.
The ongoing Israeli military action has focused on locating and freeing the abducted soldier, who turned 20 in captivity on August 27; and also on halting frequent Palestinian Kassam rocket attacks on nearby Israeli communities.
Gilad Shalit's family and friends were among tens of thousands of Israelis who gathered in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square last Thursday evening to rally in support of his immediate release. Speakers at the televised public gathering also called for the freeing of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, the two IDF reserve soldiers taken captive by Lebanese Hizballah militiamen who infiltrated across Israel's northern border on July 12th .
Noam Shalit told reporters at the large rally that negotiations for his son's release were not connected to continuing efforts by European and United Nations officials to free the two Hizballah captives. He said it was his understanding that the Israeli government was holding separate negotiations over the two kidnapping incidents.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan stated on Monday that Israeli and Hizballah leaders have accepted his offer to appoint a secret U.N. mediator to be the sole interlocutor between the two sides to secure Regev and Goldwasser's freedom.
However, an Israeli official who asked to speak off the record said that "such a mediator is not needed," since U.N. ceasefire resolution 1701 called for "the immediate and unconditional release" of the two captured Israeli soldiers.
Speaking after meeting with Saudi Arabian officials in Jeddah, Annan said that the unnamed U.N. envoy would remain anonymous to help assure the success of the talks. He also warned that he would halt the mediation effort if other parties got involved.
"If I'm going to take it on, my mediator should be the sole mediator," the U.N. chief told reporters in the Saudi capital, adding that, "If others get in, we will pull out."
Prime Minister Olmert has been criticized by several Israeli opposition politicians in recent weeks for allowing the U.N. to assume a much larger role in preventing conflict between Israel and Hizballah militiamen stationed in Lebanon.
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