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Hamas ready to free Israeli in exchange for Palestinians - Mashaal-1

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The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas is ready to free the Israeli corporal it is holding in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners, the Hamas leader said Tuesday.
(recasts, adds paragraphs 12-13, 15)

MOSCOW, February 27 (RIA Novosti) - The Palestinian Islamist group Hamas is ready to free the Israeli corporal it is holding in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners, the Hamas leader said Tuesday.

"We want to free Corporal Gilad Shalit, but we want Israel to free a certain number of our prisoners - we will specify how many," Khaled Mashaal told a news conference in Moscow.

Shalit is a 19-year-old corporal taken hostage by Palestinian gunmen in June 2006. They have insisted that they would not release the captive until Israel freed all Palestinian women and children from its jails.

Mashaal also said Israel must end the occupation of Palestinian territories before Hamas makes a final decision on the recognition or non-recognition of the state of Israel.

"When it does [pull out], the Palestinian people will clearly present their position," he said.

He also said Hamas representatives will visit Iran soon.

"Hamas has good relations with Iran, and we will soon visit Tehran," Mashaal said, adding that Russia may provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinian National Authority.

He said the Russian leadership is also working to ensure that Palestinian financial assets be unfrozen.

"These assets have been frozen in U.S. bank accounts," he said.

Russia will support the Palestinians and push for an international economic blockade of the Palestinian National Authority to be lifted, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a meeting with Hamas' political leader Tuesday.

A delegation from Hamas is visiting Moscow against the backdrop of a deadlock in peace talks with Israel and bloody inter-factional clashes in Palestinian lands, and in the wake of a series of international meetings on the Middle East conflict.

Lavrov said Tuesday that the progress achieved in Mecca at talks between Hamas and Fatah two weeks ago is enough to soften the economic blockade on the Palestinian National Authority.

"There are a few unresolved problems, but we are convinced that the progress achieved in Mecca is enough to lift economic restrictions from the Palestinian Authority," he told a RIA Novosti press conference.

Hamas and the President Mahmoud Abbas-led Fatah movement agreed to form a power-sharing Cabinet in Mecca, ending weeks of bloody street clashes between their supporters.

Hamas confirmed Tuesday that Mahmoud Abbas is the sole negotiator representing all Palestinians.

Lavrov said Russia backed the idea of establishing a national unity government for the PNA from the very beginning, in May 2006, and that Russia has consistently supported specific steps and measures to promote the process.

Mashaal said the most important achievement of the Mecca talks was that Arab and Muslim countries shared responsibility for the resolution of the Palestinian problem.

"I believe it is very important that the Mecca agreements reflect the responsibility of Muslim and Arab countries in the resolution of the Palestinian problem," he said.

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