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Swap deal may still be possible - Hamas

HAMAS appeared to hold out hope for a last-minute prisoner swap with Israel yesterday, saying some progress had been made in talks despite Israel's claim that the militant group had hardened its position and backed away from previous understandings.

As the Israeli Cabinet prepared to discuss the outcome of two days of Egyptian-brokered talks at a special session, Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk left the door open to a deal. The Islamic militant group which controls Gaza is seeking the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Schalit, an Israeli soldier held in Gaza for nearly three years.

"There was some movement on this issue but not to the point of reaching an agreement," Abu Marzouk, Hamas's No. 2 official, said. "We are waiting for the Israeli Cabinet meeting to see whether they are going to approve the demand of the Palestinian factions that captured the Zionist soldier."

The Israel-Hamas talks in Cairo ended on Monday without an agreement. Outgoing Israeli President Ehud Olmert said no deal had been reached, placing the blame squarely on Hamas.

"During the negotiations, Hamas hardened its positions, retracted understandings reached during the last year and raised extreme demands, despite generous Israeli offers," Olmert said.

Olmert's statement came shortly after the two senior envoys returned from Cairo. The talks are mediated by Egypt because Israel and Hamas do not negotiate directly.

It was unclear whether Olmert, who is set to leave office in the next few days, would instruct his negotiators to make one last attempt to work out a deal with Hamas.

Israel says it will not ease its blockade of Gaza, home to 1.4 million Palestinians, before Schalit returns home.

As long as the blockade is in place, Gaza cannot import the construction materials and equipment it needs to rebuild after an Israeli offensive early this year.

A prisoner-exchange accord might also shore up efforts to clinch a sustained truce between Israel and Hamas.


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