JERUSALEM Israel said on Tuesday it had failed to trace any remains of one of its soldiers who it believes died in the Gaza Strip two days ago and whom Hamas said it had captured.
The Israeli military named the missing man as Oron Shaul, 21, who was travelling in an armoured vehicle that was hit by at least one anti-tank missile fired by Palestinian fighters in Gaza on Sunday.
Six other soldiers were in the vehicle at the same time and their remains have all been identified, the army said in a statement. "The efforts to identify the seventh soldier are ongoing and have yet to be determined," it added.
Hamas's armed wing announced on Sunday it had captured an Israeli soldier identified as Shaul Aron, revealing his army ID number, but not saying whether he was dead or alive.
The Israeli military has not clearly classified the soldier as missing, dead or alive. "There are question marks still left to be answered," said Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner.
He told reporters the APC was in a convoy when it was possibly hit by multiple missiles. "The result was dramatic and the devastation on the site was huge," he said. "Over the last few days we have carried out extensive forensic examination and we have concluded that we have identified six (bodies). But we have not completed our forensic examination," he said.
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Shaul's cousin, Racheli Gazit, told reporters that the army had informed the family that its examination of the wrecked APC had so far not turned up any remains of her relative, but that there were more findings still being looked at.
"As far as the family is concerned, as long as there are no conclusive findings, Oron is not dead," she told reporters.
One Israeli official involved in the investigation suggested that Hamas might have the remains of the soldier.
"Everything in our analysis points to the soldier not having survived the incident. As far as we are concerned, Hamas is trafficking in human remains," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Israel launched a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip on Thursday to halt rocket fire out of the territory. Some 600 Palestinians, many of them civilians, and 29 Israelis, 27 of them soldiers, have died so far in the conflict.
Israel has agreed to mass releases of Palestinian prisoners in the past to secure the freedom of captured soldiers, or even for the return of the bodies of its citizens. In 2011, it released more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for an abducted Israeli conscript soldier, whom Hamas had seized in a cross-border raid and held for five years.
Hamas' announcement on Sunday that it had captured an Israeli soldier sparked celebrations in Gaza.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Crispian Balmer; Writing by Maayan Lubell, Editing by Tom Heneghan)