Mideast truce reported

The Baltimore Sun

JERUSALEM - Israel and the Islamic group Hamas have agreed on a mutual cease-fire scheduled to take effect tomorrow after negotiations brokered by Egypt, Egyptian state news media announced yesterday.

The official Egyptian state-owned news agency MENA and state-run television quoted an unidentified senior Egyptian official as saying that the truce would begin at 6 a.m. Israeli officials would not immediately confirm or deny that any agreement had been reached.

Talks brokered by Egypt have been proceeding intensively between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Both sides have appeared keen on achieving a cease-fire, but neither side is likely to stop exchanges until the truce goes into effect. Three Israeli airstrikes hit targets yesterday in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli army said.

Palestinian medical officials in Gaza said at least six militants were killed and two others wounded in the strikes.

However, a Palestinian official quoted by Reuters said that despite the deaths, the negotiations for a truce were still on track.

"The two sides agreed, and the implementation of the truce will begin" tomorrow, said the Palestinian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to announce a deal.

According to the Bloomberg news agency, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said on al-Quds Radio: "We are so close to hammering out a final truce agreement. The cease-fire will include a cessation of fire, ending the blockade and reopening the closed border crossings of the Gaza Strip."

On Monday, Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader, said that the talks were nearing completion and that he hoped for a "happy ending."

Witnesses said five of the six killed in the airstrikes yesterday were members of the radical group Islamic Jihad. The sixth was also a militant but was not immediately identified.

The Israeli military said the first two strikes hit vehicles carrying what they called "terror operatives." The third strike was against "other activists," the army said.

The medical officials in Gaza said four militants were killed in the first strike, against a car driving on a road east of Khan Yunis, and that the second strike was also on a car.

Towns in southern Israel have been under continual rocket and mortar fire from Gaza in recent months, while Gaza has been subject to frequent Israeli strikes aimed at militants and incursions.

Israel's security Cabinet decided last week to pursue an arrangement for mutual quiet, though it also instructed the military to prepare for more serious action should the talks fail or the truce break down.

The developments yesterday come after Israel appeared to be making diplomatic progress on other fronts Monday: a possible prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, and a second round of indirect talks with Syrian representatives in Turkey.

Israeli officials refused to comment about possible developments with Hezbollah and said it would be premature to draw any conclusions about understandings with Syria.

Meanwhile, some Israelis have suggested that the flurry of diplomatic activity is intended to distract attention from the political and legal troubles of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who police say is suspected of receiving illicit funds.

The possibility of an imminent prisoner exchange with Hezbollah, involving the two Israeli reservists whose capture by the militant group set off the 2006 war in Lebanon, seemed more likely on Monday when Zvi Regev, the father of one of the reservists, said he had been told about their possible return. Regev, the father of Eldad Regev, told Israel Radio that Ofer Dekel, the Israeli official in charge of the soldiers' case, told the family two weeks ago "that a deal was about to be carried out."

Dekel did not go into detail, he said, and did not know the soldiers' condition. Both were wounded in a Hezbollah ambush across the Israeli border that led to their capture in July 2006; the Lebanese group has offered no proof that they are alive.

Two Lebanese newspapers, Al-Akhbar and As Safir, reported Monday that a prisoner exchange could take place as early as the end of this week.

On June 1, Hezbollah representatives unexpectedly handed over to Israel the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in the 2006 war, and Israel sent back a Lebanese civilian who had completed a six-year prison term in Israel for spying for Hezbollah.

Any broader swap is likely to include the release of Samir Kuntar, the most notorious of the few remaining Lebanese prisoners in Israel. He was sentenced to multiple life terms for killing four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl, during a terrorist raid in Nahariya in 1979.

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