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Israeli soldier won't be killed, captor says

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip—A top Palestinian militant behind the abduction of an Israeli soldier in Gaza last week said Wednesday that his group won't kill the captive but also won't release him in the face of widening Israeli military attacks.

Abu Radwan, a senior leader of the Popular Resistance Committees, told a small group of American reporters, including one from McClatchy Newspapers, that those holding Cpl. Gilad Shalit, 19, would treat the French-Israeli soldier as a prisoner of war.

"Our Islamic principles ask us to take care of prisoners of war and treat them well," Radwan said. It was his first interview with American reporters since his group joined Hamas and the lesser-known Islamic Army in a June 25 cross-border raid that ended with two Israeli soldiers dead and Shalit in the hands of Palestinian militants.

Radwan said Israeli threats and military attacks wouldn't secure the soldier's release. Even the assassinations of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, or Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh wouldn't move the captors, he said. The only thing that would end the crisis would be Israel's agreement to free 1,000 prominent Palestinian prisoners.

"The three groups agreed: Whatever the Israelis are going to do, we will not release the soldier. Abu Mazen, Haniyeh, they could invade, reoccupy, whatever. There is no way he will be released," Radwan said.

Radwan, 41, spoke for an hour in southern Gaza with three reporters who agreed not to provide a more specific location as a condition for the interview. Radwan insisted that the reporters not bring their cell phones out of fear that they could be used to pinpoint his location.

The interview came as Israeli tanks began pushing farther into populated areas of the northern Gaza Strip, part of a campaign that, in addition to finding Shalit, was aimed at ending rocket fire into Israel and the leadership of Hamas, which controls the Palestinian Authority government.

Israeli navy vessels began shelling northern Gaza, and tanks moved to the edge of the area's two northernmost Palestinian towns. Palestinian sources said three police officers were injured.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called a Palestinian rocket attack Tuesday on the Israeli city of Ashkelon a "major escalation." He said the Israeli Cabinet had authorized the military to expand operations "to bring about a change in the rules of the game."

That plan appeared to include the occupation of northern Gaza, where Palestinians fire missiles into Israel. After a rocket hit Ashkelon on Wednesday, the Israeli military moved into the outskirts of Beit Hanoun, the area's northernmost town.

Radwan served for years as a top deputy to Jamal Abu Samhadana, the Popular Resistance Committees leader killed in a June 8 Israeli airstrike. About two weeks later, the group attacked the Israeli outpost and captured Shalit.

Since then, there's been no firm word on Shalit's condition. Egyptian mediators have been trying to work out a compromise to free the soldier, but Israel has publicly refused to negotiate.

Radwan refused to say where Shalit was being held or if he was still in Gaza. But he said the groups had gone to great lengths to conceal his whereabouts. Neither the militants who captured Shalit nor the Palestinians overseeing his case know where he's being held. The militants guarding Shalit don't use cell phones and rely on passing notes to communicate, he said.

The secrecy appears to have helped stave off any Israeli attempts to rescue Shalit. The Israeli media have reported that the government has no idea where the soldier is being held.

Negotiators have offered various deals to end the crisis, including suggestions that Israel assure Egypt that it would release Palestinian prisoners later this year.

But Radwan said the militants wouldn't accept such deals.

"We don't trust the enemy," he said.

With close-cropped hair and a graying beard, Radwan spoke quietly while drinking tea under fig trees in the back yard of a safe house. Goats bleated in the distance as dusk fell, and soft Arabic music drifted over the tall concrete wall that surrounded the yard.

Before the interview, Radwan took time for evening prayers and scanned the sky for the Israeli drones that look for targets and could be heard overhead.

In 2004, Radwan survived an Israeli assassination attempt that killed one of his aides and injured three others. Radwan keeps the shell of the car that was hit by the Israeli missile in a dirt lot near the Khan Yunis home he rarely visits these days.

Earlier this week, militants holding Shalit gave Israel until dawn Tuesday to release the prisoners and then said the soldier's "case was closed."

Radwan said there'd be no more negotiations over Shalit's fate and suggested that the soldier could disappear for years, much the same way that Israeli navigator Ron Arad disappeared two decades ago.

In 1986, Arad's plane crashed during an attack on a Palestine Liberation Organization base in Lebanon. Israel tried to secure Arad's release, but to this day his fate remains unclear. Militant leaders in Lebanon indicated this year that Arad was probably dead, but that hasn't been confirmed.

Even though Israel is refusing to negotiate for Shalit's release, Radwan voiced confidence that eventually it would agree. He cited past prisoner swaps, such as a 2004 deal in which Israel freed more than 400 Hezbollah prisoners in exchange for an Israeli businessman held captive in Lebanon for four years.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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