Hamas has handed over the names of Palestinian prisoners it demands Israel release in exchange for an Israeli soldier seized by Gaza gunmen 10 months ago, the Islamist group said Sunday.
"These names have been presented to the Egyptian (mediators), who in turn have presented it to the Israeli side," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said. "There is a clear progress in the fact a list of names has been presented."
But an Israeli cabinet minister and a senior aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of the Fatah faction cautioned against assuming a deal was imminent.
Barhoum gave no numbers or names. Israeli media reports said the roster listed about 1,300 prisoners, including Marwan Barghouthi, a Fatah leader widely seen as a possible successor to the moderate Abbas.
Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit was seized last June by militants from Hamas and two other armed groups who tunnelled into Israel from Gaza.
An exchange deal, after months of deadlock, could be key to any progress in talks Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas have agreed to hold on a biweekly basis at the urging of the United States.
For Palestinians, freedom for brethren in Israeli jails - especially long-serving prisoners - is a highly emotive issue. Olmert has accused Abbas of failing to deliver on promises to secure Shalit's release.
Sources in Olmert's office said Israel had received the list and a ministerial committee would meet in the coming days to decide on whether to loosen criteria for releasing prisoners in an exchange deal, a change the cabinet would have to approve.
Israel has balked in the past at trading Palestinian prisoners categorized as "having blood on their hands" - a reference to attacks in which Israelis have been killed.
"Certain progress has been made compared with how things were until now," Israeli cabinet minister Isaac Herzog told Israeli Army Radio.
"There is still a long way to go. We are apparently approaching the truly difficult stage of the negotiations," Herzog said.
(China Daily via agencies April 9, 2007)