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Hamas Leader Ties Israeli Soldier's Freedom to Prisoner Swap


A senior member of the Palestinian movement Hamas insists his group will not release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit until Israel releases Hamas prisoners.

Khalil al-Hayya spoke at a rally on Friday in the Gaza Strip, his first appearance since before the recent Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Palestinian territory.

Israel insists it will not lift its blockade of Gaza until Shalit, captured in 2006, is returned. Hamas says it will not accept a permanent cease-fire until the borders are open.

Hayya's appearance came as U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell warned of more setbacks to peace efforts. Mitchell said Friday in Jerusalem that it is important to consolidate a durable and sustainable cease-fire while immediately addressing Gaza's humanitarian needs.

He also announced U.S. President Barack Obama has authorized $20 million in emergency food and medical assistance for Gaza.

The U.S. envoy continued his first official tour of the region on Friday by meeting with Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Mr. Netanyahu is a front-runner in the race to become Israel's next prime minister after elections next month.

Mitchell met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah Thursday.

Hamas ousted Mr. Abbas's forces from Gaza in 2007, confining his authority to the West Bank. Mitchell has no plans to meet with Hamas during his tour.

In an interview with Britain's "Times" newspaper, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Hamas should be brought into the peace process if it renounces violence and recognizes Israel. Mr. Blair is the Mideast envoy for the so-called "Quartet" -- the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia.

In another development, Egypt's Foreign Ministry says the country will host an international conference on rebuilding Gaza in March.

Hamas and Israel declared unilateral cease-fires on January 18, ending a 22-day Israeli offensive against the group. Israel said it launched the operation to stop militants from firing rockets at Israeli communities. The fighting killed 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis.

On Friday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told reporters he hoped the truce would hold, saying that Israel had hit Hamas hard.

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