Atul Aneja

Olmert rejects militants' terms for release of soldier

DUBAI: The crisis surrounding the capture of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian militants could prolong, as negotiations to secure his release have not reached a decisive stage.

Three Palestinian organisations Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, which is loyal to the ruling Hamas, the previously unknown Army of Islam and the grassroots level Popular Resistance Committees have claimed responsibility for seizing the 19-year old Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit. Mr. Shalit was taken away on Sunday after militants attacked the tank in which he was the gunner. The attackers approached their target after passing through a 500-metre-long tunnel, which had been dug up. The incident took place at the Kerem Shalom army post in Gaza. Two Israeli soldiers and two assailants were killed in the attack.

In a faxed message, the militant groups asked for the release of women and children lodged in Israeli prisons. According to the statement, "The Occupation (Israel) will not get any information about its missing soldier until it commits to the following: "First, the immediate release of all women in prison. Second, the immediate release of all children in prison younger than 18."

It is estimated that Israel is holding nearly 9,000 Palestinian prisoners. These include 100 women and around 300 who are below 18.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has rejected the militants' demands. On the contrary, he has ordered a massive troop build-up on the outskirts of Gaza. He warned, "a large-scale military operation is approaching". Analysts, however, point out that Israelis were unlikely to carry out the attack unless the Americans gave them the go-ahead to do so. Late on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged Israel to give diplomacy a chance to secure the soldier's release.