Israel PM talks Gaza truce with political leaders
Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert yesterday consulted domestic political leaders on Egyptian-brokered Gaza truce talks, a day after ruling out a ceasefire without the release of a captured soldier.
A senior Hamas official meanwhile hinted that the soldier may have been killed during Israel's war on the Islamist movement's besieged Gaza enclave last month, along with some 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.
"Mr. Olmert will today hold consultation with the main political leaders over a truce" with Hamas, government spokesman Mark Regev told AFP.
Asked whether the outgoing premier would to meet with the right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu -- who is widely expected to form the next government after last week's elections -- Regev said Olmert would "take into account the new circumstances created by the elections."
Egypt has been struggling to mediate a lasting truce between the two sides since a devastating three-week war in Gaza was halted by separate ceasefires on January 18 that have since been strained by tit-for-tat exchanges of fire.
Olmert said on Saturday that the Jewish state would not agree to any ceasefire without the release of Gilad Shalit, a soldier seized in a joint raid by Hamas and two other militant groups in June 2006.
One of the conditions demanded by Hamas is that all the crossings into the enclave be opened, bringing an end to the Israeli blockade imposed when the Islamist group pledged to Israel's destruction seized Gaza in 2007.
Hamas has demanded that the release of Shalit be negotiated as part of a separate prisoner exchange involving hundreds of people held in Israeli jails.
"There is no relationship between the two files," Hamas government spokesman Taher al-Nunu told AFP, referring to the truce and Shalit.
The senior exiled Hamas official Mussa Abu Marzuq meanwhile hinted Sunday that Shalit may have died during the Gaza war.
"I don't have enough information, but Shalit may have been among the children who died. But really, I don't know," he told the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat.
Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman has been leading separate negotiations with Israel and Hamas and has said efforts were underway to draw up a list of Palestinian prisoners who might be released in exchange for Shalit.
While Hamas has demanded an end to the blockade, Israel has insisted that will happen only when Hamas releases Shalit.
On Saturday Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum accused Israel of "backtracking" on the talks by demanding an open-ended agreement instead of an 18-month truce and of stepping up attacks on the group's Gaza enclave.
The two sides have been struggling to reach a formal truce in the wake of the Israeli offensive launched in December that left vast swathes of the impoverished territory in ruins.
Palestinian militants have fired more than 40 rockets and mortar rounds at southern Israel since the end of the war and the Jewish state has carried out several deadly air strikes targeting suspected militants and smuggling tunnels.
On Saturday, the Israeli army said a longer-range Grad-style rocket fired by Gaza militants had evaded its early warning system and struck the seaside town of Ashdod, 38 kilometres (23 miles) north of Gaza.
The rocket was believed to have been fired on Friday evening, as militants launched shorter-range rockets and a mortar round, prompting a series of Israeli air strikes that killed one militant and wounded nine other people.
In a separate incident a roadside bomb exploded near an Israeli army patrol along the border without causing any casualties, the army said.
Last week Israel held general elections in which right-wing parties -- which have vowed tough action against Hamas in Gaza -- made major gains, casting further doubt on the truce talks.