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Dickering Over Deals In Mideast

Rebuffing the incoming Palestinian prime minister, the leader of Hamas said Wednesday the militant group will not disarm, agree to a truce or join the new Palestinian government.

In a rare public appearance, Sheik Ahmed Yassin struck a defiant tone against incoming Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia, who has complained of the "chaos of weapons" in the Palestinian areas, proposed a comprehensive truce with Israel and invited Hamas into his government.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in remarks published Wednesday that a large-scale swap of prisoners with Lebanese guerrillas is closer than ever, but will not include Palestinian uprising leader Marwan Barghouti. He also said that Israel will insist on DNA testing of three bodies of Israeli soldiers that are to be handed over by Hezbollah.

Any of the issues raised by Sharon in an interview with the Maariv daily could hold up or torpedo the German-brokered deal. Cabinet approval is not assured and Barghouti's attorney has said the Palestinian leader, considered a possible successor to Yasser Arafat, tops Hezbollah's list of prisoners it wants freed.

In the Gaza Strip, meanwhile, a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed early Wednesday in a gun battle between Palestinians and Israeli troops searching for weapons-smuggling tunnels along the Gaza-Egypt border.

The firefight erupted when 20 Israeli tanks and armored bulldozers entered the Rafah refugee camp. Mohammed Hamdan, 16, a helper of the gunmen, was killed in the gun battle, hospital officials said, and more than a dozen Palestinians were wounded. Palestinian witnesses said troops razed two houses.

The setting of Yassin's news conference reflected Hamas' growing concerns for the safety of its leaders. He spoke to journalists at a mosque, presumably a site Israel would not attack because of religious sensitivities. He also was not flanked by senior Hamas officials, as would have been customary.

Yassin, along with other Hamas leaders, has been marked for death by Israel. He survived a Sept. 6 airstrike, and has only left his home once since then.

Qureia has not said what steps, if any, he would take to get illegal weapons off the street, as required by the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan that envisions a Palestinian state by 2005. Qureia and other officials have said they won't use force against the militants.

Yassin said Wednesday that Hamas would not disarm voluntarily.

"The weapons that our people carry to defend our land and our people, nobody can confiscate them," he said. "We can only talk about this after liberating the land. Taking weapons means surrender and defeat."

Yassin also said Hamas would not agree to a truce with Israel; a unilateral cease-fire declared by Hamas and other militants June 29 collapsed in a burst of violence several weeks later.

"There is no place to talk about a truce because the enemy is continuing his aggression, killing and settlement activities," Yassin said, but stopped short of saying there would be continued Hamas bombings and shootings.

Sharon's remarks in Maariv marked the first time the prime minister has spoken publicly on a possible prisoner exchange.

Sharon said negotiations have gone further than ever before. "We are closer than before (to a deal), but it's still far from being finished," he told Maariv.

In the emerging swap, Israel would release several hundred prisoners, including Lebanese guerrilla leaders Abdel Karim Obeid and Mustafa Dirani, in exchange for ailing Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah in 2000.

Israel had seized Obeid and Dirani in 1989 and 1994, respectively, as bargaining chips for the release of Israeli airman Ron Arad who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986 and is believed by Israel to be held by Iran.

Meanwhile, Arad's family is seeking $22.5 million (100 million shekels) in compensation from one of his former captors, according to a suit filed Wednesday.

The main purpose of the suit is to try to prevent the possible release of the captor, Lebanese guerrilla leader Mustafa Dirani, from an Israeli jail in the prisoner swap, Arad's family said.

"Our struggle is to keep Dirani here," Arad's brother, Chen, told Israel Army Radio. "Every legal tool in this matter is legitimate and we will use it."

Arad's family said it was the first step in its campaign to prevent Dirani from being included in any prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah. The family also was expected to seek an interim injunction to prevent the state from including Dirani in the swap, reported Haaretz newspaper.

He said he would seek Cabinet approval for what he said would be a complex decision. "Let there be not one minister who is not part of the discussion," Sharon said. "I want the ministers to be personally responsible for this decision."

Ministers would be forced to choose between two maxims — bringing home captives at any price and not freeing those involved in deadly attacks on Israelis. The deal would likely be lopsided, leading to the release of several hundred Arab prisoners in exchange for one Israeli captive.

Israel has agreed to such a ratio in the past, including in 1985 when three Israeli POWs were traded for 1,150 Palestinian prisoners.

Palestinian sources say Israel has agreed in principle to release imprisoned leaders of militant groups and those with life sentences.

However, Sharon said that Barghouti "cannot be a condition for this deal," adding that "Barghouti is responsible for acts of murder, and he is going to prison."

Palestinian sources insisted Barghouti would be among those freed, despite Israel's public denials.

Barghouti is on trial for alleged involvement in attacks that killed 26 Israelis. Barghouti, a Palestinian legislator, insists Israel has no right to try him since he was abducted from the West Bank.

An Israeli security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said about 300 prisoners would be freed.