|France asks Syria to help free Gilad Shalit|
|Tuesday, 27 January 2009|
French lawmaker sent by President Nicolas Sarkozy on a Middle East fact
finding mission reported Tuesday that France asked Syria to encourage
Hamas to release an Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit held by the
Sarkozy raised the issue Shalit, a dual French-Israeli national who was captured in 2006, with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by telephone last week, Philippe Marini told reporters.
Diplomats in the Syrian capital said Shalit's release was also a main focus of a visit by Sarkozy to Damascus this month during the Israeli invasion of Gaza.
Marini said that " Shalit is an Israeli soldier but he is also a French national. We insist a lot on this because it is our duty to defend our citizens"
The French senator would not drawn on whether Syria, which hosts the exiled leadership of Hamas, was exercising influence on Hamas to release Shalit, but he said a deal was needed after Egyptian mediation for a prisoner swap went nowhere.
Marini, who is well connected in Syria, hinted that Shalit's release was tied to strengthening a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel that halted the Israeli offensive in Gaza and to lifting the blockade on the strip.
Hamas cited the Israeli blockade, which has hurt Gaza's 1.5 million Palestinians, as one of the reasons for not renewing a previous "calm" with Israel last month.
After meeting Assad, Marini said "All parties must understand that (Shalit) is a very important issue for progress on maintaining the ceasefire and other discussions"
The Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, and other Palestinian organizations captured the soldier in a raid outside Gaza.
Egypt had been mediating a prisoners swap but Hamas and Israel disagreed on the number of Palestinians prisoners to be freed in return for Shalit.
Palestinian political commentator Ali Badwan said that Hamas was sticking to a list of 500 prisoners and that the group was against linking Shalit to a deal other than a prisoner swap.
The list includes Ahmed Saadat, head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouthi, who was jailed for orchestrating attacks against Israel during the last Palestinian uprising.
For its part, Palestinian Islamic Hamas Movement has condemned the deployment of a French frigate off the coast of Gaza, saying it would reinforce an Israeli blockade on the strip
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