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Israel Says No Truce Without Release of Captured Soldier

JERUSALEM - Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Saturday Israel would not agree to any truce with the Islamist Hamas movement without the release of an Israeli soldier seized by Palestinian militants in 2006.

Smoke in Rafah after an Israel air strike targeting smuggling tunnels that link the southern Gaza Strip with Egypt on February 13, 2009. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Saturday Israel would not agree to any truce with Hamas without the release of an Israeli soldier seized by Palestinian militants in 2006. (AFP photo) "The position of the prime minister is that Israel won't reach any arrangement on a truce before the release of Gilad Shalit," Olmert's office said in a statement.

Egypt has been struggling to mediate a lasting truce between the two sides since a massive 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.

One of the conditions being demanded by Hamas is that all the crossings into the enclave be opened, bringing an end to the Israeli blockade imposed when Hamas seized Gaza in 2007.

Hamas has demanded that the release of Shalit -- captured by three militant groups in a deadly cross-border raid in June 2006 -- be negotiated as part of a separate prisoner exchange involving hundreds of people held in Israeli jails.

On Thursday, senior Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told Libyan television that "until now there is no agreement concerning Shalit. Israel is trying to mix up the files and link his fate to the opening of the crossings (into Gaza)."

Egyptian security chief Omar Suleiman has been leading separate negotiations with Israel and Hamas and has said efforts were under way to draw up a list of Palestinian prisoners that 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.

Earlier on Saturday, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum accused Israel of "backtracking" on the talks by demanding an open-ended agreement and stepping up attacks on the group's Gaza enclave.

"(Israel) has demanded a long-term, open-ended truce and not an 18-month truce as had been (previously) established," he said.

The two sides have been struggling to reach a formal truce in the wake of the Israeli offensive that killed some 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis and 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 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.

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.

The Islamist group -- which won 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections but remains blacklisted as a terror group in the West -- seized power in Gaza in June 2007 after routing forces loyal to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

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