October 30, 2008 - 8:00pm

EGYPT WOULD WILLINGLY stand aside and let some other government mediate a prisoner release between Israelis and Palestinians, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in an interview published on Thursday.

Egypt has been trying for months, so far without success, to arrange the exchange of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Palestinians in Gaza have been holding Shalit for more than two years.

In the interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, Mubarak showed signs of frustration with the task, and especially of suggestions that Egypt had failed.

The Egyptian state news agency MENA carried the text of the interview in advance of publication in Israel.

"Whoever can solve the problem, let them go ahead. It's not our monopoly... Whoever can solve it, solve it, and I will applaud," said Mubarak, who discussed Shalit with Israeli President Shimon Peres one week ago in a Red Sea resort.

After his talks with Peres, Mubarak told a conference that "the other side" was responsible for the deadlock in the talks, but he did not make clear who he meant.

In the interview he said: "In fact the responsibility lies with both sides. We are trying to solve the problem with Palestinians and they say they want a large number [of prisoners] released. Then Israel says: 'No, we won't release so-and-so and so-and-so,' and so on. We are trying to reconcile the two sides." Any mediator would need a relationship with the Palestinians and only one mediator should work at a time, Mubarak added.

Mubarak said that as far as he knew Shalit, who was captured in a raid close to the Gaza-Israel border in 2006, is in good health and he said the Palestinians would not harm him.

But he would make no prediction about when a prisoner exchange might take place.

Cairo eyes Quartet meeting

Egypt is planning to host a meeting of the Middle East peace Quartet on November 9, the same day Palestinian groups begin reconciliation talks in Cairo, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Thursday.

"There are ongoing talks to hold the meeting on November 9," Hossam Zaki told AFP, adding that the talks in the Red Sea resort Sharm El Sheikh will review the status of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

The Quartet is composed of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union. It was launched in 2002 to oversee implementation of a US sponsored "roadmap" for peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The Sharm meeting will take place almost a year after US-hosted talks in Annapolis, Maryland, sought to revive the peace process, although little visible progress has been made since then.

The two sides remain deeply divided on the core issues of the decades-old conflict, including the future status of Jerusalem, the fate of some 4.6 million Palestinian refugees and continuing Israeli settlement activity on occupied land.

The Quartet has come under criticism from aid agencies, which warned last month that it was "losing its grip" on the peace process and must radically revise its approach.

Rice visit

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to the Middle East next week to participate in the meeting of the Middle East peace Quartet in Egypt and to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, the State Department said Thursday.

"Secretary of State Rice will travel to Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and Egypt from November 5 to 9," said department spokesman Robert Wood.

"While in the region, she will meet with her Quartet counterparts and senior government officials to discuss efforts to achieve positive and lasting peace in the region, consistent with the Annapolis process and the shared goal of a two-states solution

Gaza rocket

Defence Minister Ehud Barak on Tuesday ordered the closure of Israel's crossings with the Gaza Strip shortly after fighters fired a rocket on southern Israel despite a four-month-old truce.

The closure of the crossing points, through which vital supplies are imported into the Hamas-ruled territory, went into effect on Thursday morning, a statement from Barak's office said.

It did not say when the crossing points would reopen.

The decision came after Palestinian fighters fired a rocket that slammed into an empty field in southern Israel, causing no casualties or damage.

Since a truce in and around Gaza went into effect on June 19, Israel has closed the crossing points for several days every time a rocket has been fired into its territory.

Meanwhile, Hamas said it is releasing prisoners from the rival Fateh ahead of reconciliation talks between the two Palestinian groups.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the prisoner release is a goodwill gesture which the movement hopes, "will help pave the road towards dialogue". Hamas said that on Thursday it released all 17 of the Fateh prisoners it holds. They had been arrested three months ago.

Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in bloody street battles last year. Both Hamas and Fateh have been feuding since, with violence and arrests common place.

Israel is holding peace talks with the western-backed Fateh while shunning Hamas.


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