Hamas militants released a recorded message from captured Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the first sign of life from the young serviceman since he was abducted.
In the audio message, posted on the Web site of Hamas' military wing, Shalit sent greetings to his family and army comrades and said his health is deteriorating. He also expressed disappointment in the "lack of interest" of the Israeli government in his fate.
"Mother and father, my sister and brother, my friends in the Israel Defense Forces. I greet you from prison and miss you all," he said, speaking in Hebrew.
"I have spent a full year in prison, and my health is still deteriorating, and I need a prolonged hospitalization. I regret the lack of interest on the part of the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces in my case and their refusal to meet the demands of the al-Qassam brigades," he added.
Shalit was captured on June 25, 2006, by militants from Hamas and two allied groups who tunneled into Israel from the Gaza Strip. Negotiations for his release, mediated by Egypt, have repeatedly broken down and been complicated since Hamas took control of Gaza two weeks ago.
In the tape, Shalit called on the Israeli government to meet Palestinian demands for a large-scale prisoner swap.
"Just as I have parents, a mother and father, the thousands of Palestinian prisoners have mothers and fathers to whom their sons must be returned," he said. "I have a great hope from my government that it show more interest in me and meet the demands of the mujahideen (captors)."
Before Monday, Shalit, 20, had not been seen or heard from since he was captured, though there have been reports that a letter was sent to his family. The Web site did not say when the tape was made or include video of Shalit. But the recording accompanied by a photo of Shalit and footage of Hamas militants and images of last year's attack appeared to be authentic. The recording also was played on Hamas' Al Aqsa TV station in Gaza.
Shalit's father, Noam, listened to the tape on Channel 2 television, asking the station to play it a second time for the soldier's mother to hear. He said it appeared that the statement was coerced.
"I imagine that it's the same as the letter they dictated to him and doesn't reflect his real state," he said. "We want somebody independent to see him, to examine him and the conditions under which he is held, his medical condition of course and his mental (state)."
Israeli commentators said Shalit appeared to be reading a text that was written for him, noting the statement was not in typical spoken Hebrew and appeared to be clumsily translated from Arabic.
The recording was released as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was attending a meeting in Egypt with the moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian King Abdullah II. The recording may have been an attempt by Hamas to influence the summit, which was meant to provide a boost of support to Abbas in his struggle against Hamas.
In the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, called the tape a "cruel gimmick" and ruled out negotiations with Hamas. "How cruel can Hamas be?" she asked. "We will not cooperate with Hamas. We will not compromise with Hamas."
Still, Olmert could face growing pressure to talk directly to Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist group. Cabinet Minister Eli Yishai and lawmaker Danny Yatom, a former chief of the Mossad spy agency, called on the government to begin negotiations with Hamas.
"With the absence of a military option, we must conduct negotiations and pay the price," Yatom told Channel 10 TV. Yatom is a member of the Labor Party, the junior partner in Olmert's coalition government.
In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad told Israel's Channel 2 TV that "we want to reach a deal at the end of the day. If the Israeli side wants, we can renew negotiations for his release."
Meanwhile, the Israeli human rights group B'tselem accused Shalit's captors of war crimes, noting their refusal to allow Red Cross workers to visit Shalit. But the militants holding the soldier insisted he was in good health and treated well.
"His health is good and he's stable. We are treating him according to our religion's instructions on how to deal with war prisoners," said Abu Mujahid, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, one of three Hamas-linked groups that captured Shalit.
Abu Mujahid said Shalit "doesn't need anything" and is receiving the "best treatment."
The militants called for Shalit's family pressure the Israeli government to release Palestinian prisoners in exchange for freeing Shalit. Shalit's father said Sunday at a rally that the government was not doing enough to bring him home.
Israel has agreed to a prisoner swap in principle, but balked at some of the Palestinian demands for the number and type of prisoners to be freed.
Abu Mujahid dismissed B'tselem's accusations, saying Shalit was captured in a tank that was used to fight Palestinians.
"Any occupiers on the land are a legitimate target because they are soldiers," Abu Mujahid said. Israel is the one that has committed war crimes by killing Palestinian civilians, he said.
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