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An envoy negotiating the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit has met twice in recent weeks with senior Hamas members in an Israeli jail, reporting progress on a prisoner swap deal, according to a lawyer close to the talks.
The envoy, Ofer Dekel, met 10 days ago with five members of the Hamas military wing at Hadarim Prison near Netanya, said the lawyer, who represents another inmate and spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the negotiations with reporters.
Miri Eisin, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, declined comment on the issue. Israel has said it would shun all members of Hamas.
Dekel told the Hamas inmates that progress has been made on a deal to win the release of Cpl. Schalit, who was captured by Hamas-allied terrorists in June 2006 and is being held in Gaza, the lawyer said. In exchange, Hamas seeks the release of several hundred prisoners, but Israel has balked at meeting the demands.
Dekel told the five Hamas prisoners - all of whom are serving life sentences - that some in the group would be able to go home soon, but that others would be sent into exile if a deal goes through, the lawyer said.
Dekel first met with the Hamas prisoners about six weeks ago, the lawyer said. Dekel has also visited Egypt, which is mediating between Israel and Hamas. Egyptian officials said Dekel most recently held talks with Egyptian officials about a week ago.
Earlier Friday, deputy head of Hamas's political bureau in Syria, Moussa Abu Marzouk, estimated that Israel would eventually accede to the group's demands over the release of Schalit "since it has no other way of securing his freedom."
In an interview published on the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt website, Marzouk stressed that Hamas was demanding the release of 350 prisoners whose names had already been handed over to Israel, in addition to imprisoned women and minors.
He said it was already agreed that Israel would free the prisoners in three stages but talks were halted after Israel rejected the prisoner list.
Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority parliamentarian Ayman Darameh, of Hamas, denied quotes attributed to him earlier that Hamas leaders in Israeli jails were authorized to conduct direct negotiations with Israel over Schalit's release.
Darameh said that the interview in the Persian-Gulf based Al-Halij newspaper was conducted by a foreign correspondent and so his comments were "seemingly mistranslated."
Darameh told Israel Radio that he had no connection to Hamas's imprisoned leaders, neither with Hamas leaders in Gaza nor to the group's armed wing.
He said that he was "very far" from the talks to secure the release of the kidnapped IDF soldier and that all he knew "was the information presented in the media."
Similarly, Marzouk also said that only Egypt was authorized to conduct negotiations over a prisoner swap deal and that there were no direct or indirect talks involving any other mediator.
Al-Halij had quoted Darameh as saying that the talks were "at the moment in the hands of the Hamas prisoners," adding that there had already been several meetings on the issue between the prisoners and senior Israeli officials.
Despite, Darameh's denial, Israel Radio reported that at the beginning of the week, Hamas spokesman in Gaza, Ayman Taha, confirmed that there had been meetings between Israeli officials and leaders of the Hamas prisoners, adding that the aim of the talks was to clarify Hamas's position regarding the Schalit deal.
Meanwhile, Gilad's father, Noam, published an open letter to his son in the French daily Le Figaro.
In the letter, Noam expressed regret that although Gilad's captors declared that he was a prisoner of war, "they are not allowing you the conventional rights given to prisoners of war according to international law and according to the Islamic religion."
The letter was written by Noam, 53, together with his wife Aviva, 52, and their other children Yoel, 24, and Hadas, 17.
The Schalit family is expected to travel to France early next week for a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
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