GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—Palestinian militants holding a 19-year-old Israeli soldier hostage ratcheted up the pressure Monday by issuing a veiled threat to kill him unless Israel releases hundreds of prisoners by dawn Tuesday.
In a statement immediately rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as extortion, the three groups holding Cpl. Gilad Shalit said they would "consider the current case closed" if Israel didn't begin releasing more than 1,000 prisoners by 6 a.m. Tuesday morning (11 p.m. Monday EDT), "and then the enemy shall have to bear all future consequences."
Within hours, Olmert issued a terse statement warning leaders of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority that Israel would hold them responsible if the Israeli soldier was killed.
"Israel will not give into the extortion by the Palestinian Authority and the Hamas government, which are led by a murderous terrorist organization," the statement read. "We will not conduct any negotiations on the release of prisoners."
The demand came as diplomatic efforts to secure Shalit's release appeared deadlocked, Israeli tanks began rolling into northern Gaza for small-scale operations and the soldier's father urged Israel's military chief of staff to get his son back alive.
"Everything is at a standstill and we are going around in a circle, unfortunately," said Qais Abu Leila, a Palestinian lawmaker who has been working to resolve the crisis.
Pressure has slowly been building since June 25 when Palestinian militants, including Hamas gunmen, attacked an Israeli military outpost along the Gaza Strip border, killing two soldiers and capturing Shalit.
Within days, Israel sent tanks back into the Gaza Strip for the first time since last September, when it officially ended its 38-year military occupation of the area. Israeli troops took over the defunct Gaza Strip airport as a base of operations, but stopped short of a full-scale invasion.
Over the past week, Israeli jets have crippled the region's only power plant, destroyed key bridges, buzzed the summer palace of Syrian President Bashar Assad, bombed militant training camps and fired missiles into the empty office of Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. Israeli soldiers in the West Bank arrested eight members of the Hamas Cabinet and nearly two dozen Palestinian lawmakers.
Early Monday, Israeli tanks moved into northern Gaza, where they began looking for tunnels in what could be a precursor to a larger military operation in the area.
The militants holding Shalit originally demanded that Israel release about 100 women prisoners and 300 other Palestinians under the age of 18 who are behind bars. After Israel began its military campaign, the militants upped their demand and called on Israel to release 1,000 prisoners.
Israeli leaders have consistently said they won't negotiate for Shalit's release because it would only encourage militants to try and abduct more Israelis.
After a week of fruitless attempts to resolve the crisis, there were indications Monday that the standoff could stretch on for weeks.
Israeli newspapers reported that the military has drawn up a prolonged campaign that calls for gradually turning up the pressure on the Gaza Strip by arresting more Hamas leaders, taking over areas in the northern Gaza Strip used by militants to fire rudimentary rockets into southern Israel, and potentially killing Hamas leaders in both Gaza and Syria.
Soon after the militants made their demands, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Dan Halutz met with Shalit's family in northern Israel. The soldier's father urged the military to do all it could to ensure that his son comes home safely, according to the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper's Web site.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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