Sat, Feb 05, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Israel will release 900 Palestinians after Egypt summit

AGENCIES , RAMALLAH, WEST BANK AND TEL AVIV, ISRAEL

Palestinians urged Israel yesterday to expand a prisoner release to ensure the success of a summit both sides hope will result in a formal declaration to end violence.

Israel had disappointed the Palestinian leadership by refusing to include those jailed for deadly attacks among the 900 prisoners whom Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and top Cabinet ministers agreed on Thursday to release in a goodwill gesture.

But the summit itself, which is scheduled for Tuesday, between Sharon and new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, appeared set to go ahead.

"Israel stuck to its criteria of not releasing those it described as having `blood on their hands,'" Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said after talks with Israeli officials about the issue broke up late on Thursday without agreement being reached.

"That means that all the prisoners who were jailed before [interim peace deals] in 1993 will not be released," he said.

Freedom for some 8,000 prisoners, especially Islamic militants and veteran inmates, is key to Abbas' aim of consolidating power, ending bloodshed and reviving a US-backed peace "road map" charting mutual steps to Palestinian statehood.

If unresolved as the summit draws nearer, the prisoners issue could loom large in meetings new US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to hold with Sharon and Abbas during a visit to the region tomorrow and Monday.

During deliberations on a confidence-building package for the Palestinians on Thursday, Sharon faced strong opposition from several Cabinet members to suggestions by other ministers to bend the terms for release, political sources said.

Rice, in London, said efforts to achieve Middle East peace were now "moving effectively" and cited Abbas' views on "the necessity to have a peaceful resolution" of the conflict.

"The fact is, though, that there will have to be action to make certain that terrorists cannot continue to frustrate both his plans and to endanger the lives of Israelis," she told a news conference.

Israeli officials said a first batch of 500 prisoners would be freed next week, after the summit, with 400 to follow over a period of three months.

Israel's plan also calls for a troop pullback from five West Bank cities, starting in Jericho next week, after the talks.

Meanwhile, Israeli security officials yesterday morning said they had 50 intelligence warnings of Palestinian militants planning to launch attacks, Israeli media reported.

The officials said that most of the attacks were being prepared by independent cells of Fatah militants. They accused the southern Lebanese Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah movement of funding the renegade cells.

Hezbollah seeks to destroy the relative calm of the past two weeks, ahead of next Tuesday's summit in Egypt, they said.

The accusations follow a day of renewed attempts by militants in the West Bank and Gaza to launch attacks, despite an informal ceasefire extracted by Abbas from leaders of the radical Hamas and Islamic Jihad movement.

Also see story:

Momentum is building for Mideast peace

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