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More hostages freed as mediation on Gaza truce extension ongoing

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Hamas released a third group of hostages on Sunday in exchange for Palestinian prisoners on day three of a truce, which multinational efforts are mediating to prolong.

“Within the framework of the humanitarian truce, we handed over to the Red Cross 13 Israeli detainees, three Thais, and one Russian,” Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, said in a press statement.

The Israeli army confirmed receiving the 13 hostages from the International Committee of the Red Cross, including four women and nine children, the youngest being four years old.

In exchange, 39 Palestinian prisoners were freed on Sunday evening, including 21 from Jerusalem, one from the Gaza Strip, and the rest from the West Bank.

Sunday’s releases bring the total number of Israeli hostages freed under the deal to 39 since Friday.

There were 24 and 17 hostages released in the first two batches respectively on Friday and Saturday. Those released were among around 240 people Hamas captured on the October 7 attack.

The truce deal reached between Israel and Hamas also stipulates the release of 50 Israeli female and teen hostages from Gaza in exchange for some 150 Palestinian women and children freed from Israeli prisons, with provisions for increasing the number of releases at subsequent stages of the agreement.

Mediation efforts ongoing

Mediation efforts have been intensified to extend the current Israel-Hamas humanitarian cease-fire.

“Qatar and Egypt conveyed a draft agreement to Israel and Hamas aiming to extend the current four-day cease-fire and facilitate a larger prisoner exchange between the two sides,” Xinhua reported, citing Palestinian sources.

Hamas has shown initial willingness regarding the Qatari-Egyptian proposal. According to a statement from a representative of the group on Sunday night, “Hamas is seeking to extend the cease-fire beyond the four days that were initially agreed upon with Israel.”

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he might agree to extend the truce with Hamas by a few days if Hamas would free more hostages.

In a phone call with U.S. President Joe Biden, Netanyahu said he would “welcome” the truce extension on the basis of an additional day for every additional ten hostages released, as outlined in the Qatari-mediated truce deal, according to an Israeli video statement.

On Sunday, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna told BFMTV that “it would be good, helpful and necessary” to extend the truce until all hostages, who include French nationals, are freed.

A Palestinian child queues to refill his liquid gas cylinder in Gaza, November 25, 2023. /CFP

More humanitarian aid needed

The temporary ceasefire in Gaza, entering its third day, entails a cessation of hostilities and an increased flow of aid trucks into the Palestinian enclave.

Since Friday, over 500 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid, including food, medical equipment, water, fuel, and cooking gas, have entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing, according to United Nations reports.

Though more aid is reaching Palestinians struggling to survive with shortages of water and other essentials, Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, warned of “unprecedented” humanitarian needs.

“We should send 200 lorries a day continuously for at least two months,” he said.

The UN estimates that 1.7 million of Gaza’s 2.4 million people have been displaced by the fighting.

“We need such humanitarian aid, but we also need security. We hope the international community could pressure Israel to stop the conflict against us in Gaza,” said Mohammed Afana, a Beit Lahia-based Palestinian man.

Source(s): CGTN

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Middle East countries voice concern over military escalation after alleged Israeli attack on Iran

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Countries in the Middle East have voiced their concern over military escalation in the region after Israel on Friday allegedly struck sites near the city of Isfahan, central Iran, in what appeared to be its military response to Iran’s recent retaliatory attack.

In a statement, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry called on the two sides to exercise the utmost restraint and to fully comply with the rules of international law and the UN Charter, warning against widening the conflict and instability in the region.

Egypt stressed that it will continue to intensify communications with all concerned and influential parties to contain the ongoing escalation and tension.

In addition, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the ministry “is constantly monitoring the tension in the region,” expressing its deep concern about the attack targeting Isfahan on Friday morning.

The ministry said that the escalation must not distract attention from the destruction and loss of innocent lives in the Gaza Strip, renewing its call on the international community to perform its duties and work to stop the suffering of the Palestinian people, according to the statement.

Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi on Friday stressed the need to reduce the dangerous escalation in the region and reiterated that “Jordan will not allow it to be turned into an arena of conflict between Iran and Israel and to endanger its security and the safety of its citizens.”

Safadi, who also serves as the Jordanian foreign minister, added on social media platform X that “the current escalation only serves to divert attention away from the Israeli aggression on Gaza, stopping which must be the priority.”

The Israeli attack came after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps confirmed Saturday that it had launched missile and drone attacks on Israel in retaliation for earlier airstrikes by Israel on April 1 on the Iranian consulate building in the Syrian capital of Damascus, which killed seven Iranians.

So far, Israel has not officially acknowledged the strikes on Isfahan, while Iran has not publicly accused Israel of carrying them out.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Foreign Ministry on Friday condemned the Israeli strikes on Syrian military sites earlier in the day as a flagrant violation of Syrian sovereignty and a threat to regional stability.

In a statement, the ministry warned that such actions could escalate tensions in the region, potentially leading to a broader conflict, and urged the international community, including the UN Security Council, to condemn the attack and take decisive measures to halt the “crimes” committed by Israel.

In the early hours of Friday, the Israeli military launched a series of airstrikes targeting Syrian air defense sites in the southern region, according to the Syrian Defense Ministry. The strikes caused material losses, while no casualties were reported, it added.

The attack was also confirmed by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported that more than six Israeli aircraft were observed flying intensively in southern Syria.

The radar battalion responsible for monitoring the airspace, located in the east of Syria’s Daraa province, was targeted, the war monitor added.

Source(s): CGTN

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EU, Finnish leaders call for de-escalation amid Iran-Israel tensions

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HELSINKI, April 19 (Xinhua) — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Finnish Prime Minister Petteri Orpo on Friday urged de-escalation amid Iran-Israel tensions.

They made these comments at a press conference held at southeastern Finland’s Lappeenranta airport on Friday. The event followed a visit to the Finnish eastern border near the town of Imatra.

“We must do everything possible to ensure that all sides refrain from escalating the situation in the region,” said von der Leyen. She emphasized the necessity for stabilizing in the region.

Orpo expressed hope that both sides would avoid retaliatory attacks.

According to local media reports, the purpose of their visit to the eastern border was to inspect a pilot fence, about three kilometers long, built near the Imatra border crossing.

Source(s): Xinhua

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Blinken says U.S. not involved in Israeli attack against Iran

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that he can’t speak to media reports about the details of an Israeli attack against Iran overnight, stressing that the United States was not involved in any offensive operations by Israel.

“The reports that you’ve seen, I’m not going to speak to that, except to say that the United States has not been involved in any offensive operations,” Blinken told a press conference in Italy as he wrapped up a meeting with foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G7) countries.

He was responding to a reporter’s question seeking confirmation of media reports saying Washington received advance warning from Israel on Thursday of an imminent strike against Iran in retaliation for Tehran’s assault on Israel last week.

“What we’re focused on, what the G7 is focused on, and again, it’s reflected in our statement and in our conversation, is our work to de-escalate tensions, to de-escalate from any potential conflict,” Blinken said in what were first public remarks on the Israeli attack by a cabinet member of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration.

What Blinken also refused to address during that round of questions and answers was the White House’s assessment of whether the Israeli strikes were over and if Iran would retaliate.

Earlier on Friday, Iran’s air defense systems shot down several “flying objects” near the central city of Isfahan, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

The Israeli side has not yet made any announcement regarding the attack.

Source(s): CGTN

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