Israelis deny agreement on release of prisoner

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JERUSALEM (AP) – Israeli officials on Monday denied claims that they were close to a deal that would secure the release of a captured soldier held by Palestinian militants, citing excessive demands by the Islamic Hamas.

Expectations have been building in the media that an announcement could be made at an Israel-Egypt summit on Thursday, but Israeli officials said no agreement was near.

Arab media outlets have been reporting for days that a deal to free the captured Israeli soldier is imminent, and Palestinian officials have disclosed specific details, saying Israel would carry out a scaled release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in return for the soldier.

The fate of Cpl. Gilad Shalit has emerged as a formidable obstacle to Israel’s goal of boosting the moderate Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met Abbas on Dec. 23 and pledged a series of gestures, but the step of freeing Palestinian prisoners has been held up by fruitless attempts by Egypt to broker the Israeli soldier’s release.

One of the agreed steps was implemented Monday, when the Israeli military began easing security checks at crossing points, and Palestinians in the northern West Bank said traffic was flowing more freely, but hundreds of cars were stuck at a checkpoint at the entrance to Jericho after nightfall.

Olmert met Monday with top security officials, including Ofer Dekel, who is in charge of prisoner negotiations.

Participants concluded there has been no significant progress in negotiations with Hamas, citing excessive demands by the Islamic militant group, government officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the prisoner negotiations.

Palestinian officials in Cairo said Egypt is leaning on Hamas to lower its demands so they will be acceptable to Israel and so that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak can announce a deal at the summit Thursday, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are secret.

Ahmed Yousef, a top aide to Haniyeh, told The Associated Press he expected Israel to first release a few prisoners as a goodwill gesture, after which the soldier would be handed over to the Egyptians. Israel would follow with a larger release of 500 prisoners, and then another 500 after Shalit returns to Israel, he said.

A main sticking point could be the reported Hamas insistence on picking which prisoners would be freed, among the approximately 9,100 Palestinian security prisoners Israel is holding. Israel has generally refused to free Palestinians who took part in attacks that killed Israelis.

Separately, in Gaza City, Palestinian gunmen abducted a photographer for the French news agency Agence France Presse at gunpoint and sped away in a car, the agency and Palestinian security officials said. AFP identified the photographer as Jaime Razuri, 50, from Peru. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

It was the latest in a string of kidnappings of foreigners in Gaza in recent months. Most have been carried out by disgruntled workers seeking payment of long overdue salaries or splinter militant groups. The victims have usually been released unharmed within hours.

After nightfall, clashes erupted between rival Fatah and Hamas gunmen in northern Gaza, witnesses and security officials said. At least two people were wounded and several kidnapped by the warring factions.

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