Militants holding soldier give Israel Tuesday deadline

Palestinian militants on Monday gave Israel 24 hours to start releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, implying they will kill an abducted Israeli soldier Tuesday morning if their demands are not met.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected any negotiations with the militants, and the army pressed ahead with its Gaza offensive. Privately, though, some Israeli officials said the government had not ruled out any options to win Cpl. Gilad Shalit's freedom.

Israel has pounded Gaza with airstrikes and artillery shells for nearly a week in an unsuccessful effort to force the militants to release Shalit. Israel sent a small force of tanks into northern Gaza Monday, raising fears it was gearing up for a large invasion.

After Shalit was seized in a June 25 raid on an army post, his captors demanded Israel free all imprisoned Palestinian women and minors in exchange for information about him. They later increased their demand to include the release of a further 1,000 prisoners.

Early Monday morning, Hamas' military wing one of the three groups holding him  issued a statement giving Israel until 6 a.m. Tuesday (0300) GMT to "start" freeing the prisoners.

If Israel doesn't comply, "we will consider the soldier's case to be closed," the statement said, "and then the enemy must bear all the consequences of the future results."

Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Hamas military wing, later told The Associated Press that Israel must at least begin freeing the women and minors.

"Israel must understand that the resistance factions are serious in this matter. They will close this case if (Israel) doesn't deal with the demands," he said, adding that the militants would not compromise.

But less than 10 hours before the deadline, the Hamas-led government's spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, said he still hoped for a diplomatic solution.

"We reiterate the necessity to resolve this problem with logic and wisdom and we think there remains a chance to reach an acceptable formula," he said.

Abu Obeida refused to specify what the militants would do if the ultimatum was ignored. Killing Shalit, however, would remove their only leverage against Israel and would likely invite far harsher reprisals against Gaza.

"If God forbid, they should hurt the soldier, our operations will be far, far worse," Israeli Justice Minister Haim Ramon told Israel's Channel 2 television.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has repeatedly ruled out talks with the militants, said the government would not cave in to extortion.

"There will be no negotiations to release prisoners," his office said in a statement, adding that he holds the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority responsible for Shalit's safety, reports AP.

O.Ch.