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Antony Blinken heads to Middle East amid last-minute truce extension negotiations

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a meeting of Nato Foreign Ministers in Brussels on Wednesday before heading to the Middle East for a third time since Oct. 7 to push for an extension of an Israel-Hamas truce deal due to expire Thursday morning and, potentially, a wider-ranging agreement. Photo by Olivier Matthys/EPA-EFE
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addresses a meeting of Nato Foreign Ministers in Brussels on Wednesday before heading to the Middle East for a third time since Oct. 7 to push for an extension of an Israel-Hamas truce deal due to expire Thursday morning and, potentially, a wider-ranging agreement. Photo by Olivier Matthys/EPA-EFE

Nov. 29 (UPI) -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed back to the Middle East on Wednesday for another round of shuttle diplomacy to try to get the temporary truce between Israel and Hamas extended, hours before it was due to lapse.

Speaking at a news briefing in Brussels ahead of the visit in which he will hold talks with officials in Israel, the West Bank and the United Arab Emirates, Blinken said the United States wanted the pause "so that we continue to get more hostages out and more humanitarian assistance in."

"We'll discuss with Israel how it can achieve its objective of ensuring that the terrorist attacks of Oct. 7 never happen again, while sustaining and increasing humanitarian assistance and minimizing further suffering and casualties among Palestinian civilians."

Blinken heads to the region with the backing of the G7 group of advanced economies which issued a joint statement saying it supported extending the pause due to expire early Thursday and future pauses "as needed to enable assistance to be scaled up, and to facilitate the release of all hostages."

"We underscore the importance of protecting civilians and compliance with international law, in particular international humanitarian law," the G7 foreign ministers said.

Hamas fighters escort newly released hostages before handing them over to the International Red Cross in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Photo by UPI
Hamas fighters escort newly released hostages before handing them over to the International Red Cross in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Photo by UPI

Negotiations to agree a further extension of a six-day truce between Hamas and Israel due to expire in less than 24 hours were already underway in Qatar on Wednesday, with both sides signaling they want the pause to continue.

Israel said it was optimistic an agreement could be struck while Hamas said it was not opposed to the idea as intelligence chiefs from Israel, Egypt and the United States are trying to put together a new deal and another round of hostages was set to be released.

Hamas fighters stand guard as International Red Cross vehicles in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip depart for the Rafah Crossing with Egypt with newly released hostages aboard on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Photo by UPI
Hamas fighters stand guard as International Red Cross vehicles in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip depart for the Rafah Crossing with Egypt with newly released hostages aboard on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. Photo by UPI

Israel received a list of the sixth set of hostages set to be released by Hamas later Wednesday and their families have been informed, according to CNN.

The 10 Israeli hostages, who will be freed in exchange for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons with a ratio of three Palestinians for each hostage, are the final group to be released unless a new deal can be struck before 7 a.m. Thursday when the existing agreement expires.

Hamas official Moussa Abu Marzouk said the group would also release two Russian citizens in a gesture of "appreciation" for Russian President Vladimir Putin's stance on the conflict, although it was unclear if the pair were dual nationals.

Relatives of Russians taken hostage by Hamas traveled to Russia on Monday to press the Kremlin to intervene after Moscow played a role in getting out Roni Krivoi who was freed Sunday.

Getting out the nine child hostages, including a 10-month-old baby, still being held in Gaza remains the priority under the existing agreement, which calls for women and children to be released first.

The 10 Israelis freed Tuesday night brings to 60 the number of women and children released in the five days since the temporary truce started Friday morning with a further 21 Thai, Filipino and Russian nationals released under agreements separate to the Hamas-Israel agreement. In return 180 Palestinian detainees have also been released.

CIA Director William Burns was in Qatar on Tuesday for negotiations that focused on extending the temporary pause in fighting as well as expanding the hostage negotiations to include men and military personnel and demanding the immediate release of as many as nine Americans still held hostage.

U.S. President Joe Biden signaled support for a more lasting cessation of the fighting saying resumption of the violence was what Hamas wanted.

"Hamas unleashed a terrorist attack because they fear nothing more than Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace. To continue down the path of terror, violence, killing, and war is to give Hamas what they seek," Biden wrote in a post on Twitter late Tuesday. "We can't do that."