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Israel moves into central Gaza

Abbas, Israel make conflicting statements on prisoner swap



GAZA CITY (CNN) -- Israeli forces pushed deeper into Gaza early Saturday amid conflicting statements regarding the release of an Israeli soldier whose kidnapping last month sparked the current conflict.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Friday that Israel made a promise to the Egyptian president to free Palestinian politicians and certain prisoners if Hamas were to release the soldier, who was abducted last month in a raid by militants.

But Israeli Interior Minister Roni Bar-On told Israeli television that he consulted with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who repeated there will be no prisoner release and no negotiations with Hamas.

Abbas said in a news conference, parts of which were carried on Israeli television: "There are promises from Israel to release Palestinian prisoners who served 20 years or more, children, women and the sick."

"(Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak received those promises, and I heard them from Israeli officials. Once the soldier is released, they will do that and will pull out and will release the Cabinet members in custody," he added.

About 60 Palestinian Cabinet members, lawmakers and other officials are held in Israeli custody.

Egypt has been attempting to broker a solution to the impasse that began June 25, when 19-year-old army Cpl. Gilad Shalit was abducted. The situation escalated three days later when Israel began shelling Gaza in what it said was an attempt to get Shalit back and curb rocket attacks by Palestinians.

Two other Israeli soldiers were killed in the raid that led to Shalit's kidnapping.

Mubarak said earlier this week that Hamas had approved a conditional plan for returning Shalit, but Israel rejected the plan because it called for a prisoner swap.

Israel has rejected previous calls for prisoner exchanges, saying they would only encourage further abductions.

In an e-mail to journalists Friday, Hamas said it was treating Shalit "well" and "humanely," as dictated by Islam.

Offensive continues

Israeli troops moved into central Gaza early Saturday, exchanging fire with militants and ordering Palestinian security forces to abandon their outposts, Palestinian sources said.

There was an unknown number of casualties, the sources said.

The Israel Defense Forces acknowledged that its soldiers had opened a new front in Gaza.

Forty militants have been killed since the start of the operation last week, the Israeli army's chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, told Israel's Army Radio on Friday.

In a visit to troops near the northern Gaza border, Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz blamed the situation on the Hamas-led Palestinian government.

Following one of the deadliest days of fighting, the IDF said it launched three airstrikes Friday in northern Gaza.

The Palestinian health ministry said five people died in the strikes, and one was killed in a gunbattle with Israeli troops in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahya. The Israeli military also said one Palestinian was shot in clashes at Beit Lahya.

Palestinian medical sources identified at least two of those killed as militants. A police officer and a boy also were among the dead, the sources said.

But the Palestinian health ministry did not identify the dead as militants, and said three were family members.

Rockets fired into Sderot

Meanwhile, Palestinian militants continued to launch rockets into Israel. Five Qassam rockets were fired into the southern Israel town of Sderot, the IDF said. No damage was reported, but two people were slightly injured.

The IDF said it also shelled open areas in northern Gaza on Friday.

Israeli troops have encountered intense fighting as they staged military operations in northern and southern Gaza. Peretz said Palestinian militants were striking from within the civilian population.

Led by Hamas, the Palestinian government called on its security forces Thursday to join the fight against the Israeli military in Gaza.

Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman Khaled Abu Hilal said all Palestinian security forces had received the orders, but it was unclear how many of them would answer the call.

Most of the security forces in Gaza are loyal to the Fatah Party of Abbas. Fatah lost to Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections earlier this year.

In previous fights, Palestinian security forces have been on the sidelines for the most part, while the Israeli military battled Palestinian militants.

Abbas was not involved in the order for security forces to join the fray, said Saeb Erakat, a Palestinian legislator and Abbas aide.

Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist. Its military wing has carried out deadly attacks on Israeli civilian as well as military targets.

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