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Hamas sees truce deal in next 2-3 days

CAIRO (Reuters) - Islamist group Hamas said on Thursday it expected an Egyptian-mediated truce with Israel in Gaza to be announced in two or three days.

Hamas police officers survey a Hamas outpost destroyed after an Israeli air strike in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip February 12, 2009. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Senior Hamas leader Moussa Abu Marzouq said the truce, which would last for 18 months, would ensure the opening of all commercial crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip.

“It will be in a short period, God willing,” he told reporters. “Within two days.” Taher al-Nono, a member of the Islamist group’s delegation in Cairo, had earlier told Reuters an agreement was expected within three days.

Nono said the agreement would ensure the end of cross-border violence between Palestinian militants in the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave and Israel.

“Most of the obstacles that prevented us from reaching an agreement were resolved,” Nono said.

Israeli officials had no immediate comment.

Egypt, a regional mediator which has signed a peace deal with Israel, said earlier on Thursday it would announce “positive” results from the talks in the coming hours.

The longer-term truce deal would take the place of a shaky January 18 cease-fire, declared separately by both sides, that ended Israel’s 22-day military offensive against Hamas Islamists in the Gaza Strip.

About 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the Israeli offensive. Fourteen Israelis have been killed since December 27, when the fighting broke out.

A deal would also help restore Cairo’s regional image. Egypt has been criticised in the Arab world for not opening its Rafah border crossing with Gaza for normal traffic and for its limited humanitarian operation during the offensive.

Abu Marzouq said there would be measures “next March that would make it easier for our Palestinian people to move through the crossing.” He did not elaborate.

He said the agreement was not linked to any possible prisoner exchange deal with the Jewish state that would see the release of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid in 2006.

“This is a separate issue that has no relation with the truce,” he said. “Gilad Shalit will be (released) in exchange for Palestinian captives.” A source said linking a deal to exchange prisoners would have “complicated” the talks.

Hamas has demanded Israel free 1,400 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Shalit. Diplomats said Israel would most probably free closer to 1,000.

Hamas has repeatedly said it is seeking guarantees that Israel will lift the blockade it has enforced on Gaza after the Islamist group routed forces loyal to the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the enclave in 2007.

Abu Marzouq said Egypt was the main guarantor of the deal.

“Israel has no other choice but to comply,” he said.

Egypt has also invited all Palestinian groups for talks on national reconciliation in Cairo on February 22. Egypt had to postpone similar talks in November when Hamas said it would boycott the event, citing difference with Abbas’ Fatah group.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; editing by Elizabeth Piper