Sun, Jul 20, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Israel considers release of jailed Islamic militants


Israel is considering a limited release of jailed Islamic militants, a move that would partially satisfy a key Palestinian demand for maintaining the three-week Mideast ceasefire, Israeli officials said Friday.

Israel has already agreed to release a few hundred imprisoned Palestinians, but has refused to comply with a Palestinian call that it also free thousands of militants belonging to Hamas and Islamic Jihad, groups which have mounted suicide bombings and shootings that killed hundreds of Israelis.

Those militant groups -- together with Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement -- declared a temporary ceasefire on June 29, and the violence level has plunged.

But the prisoners dispute and Israel's refusal to return more territory until the Palestinian Authority cracks down on militants have deadlocked efforts to implement the US-backed "road map" peace plan.

Moving forward with the road map -- which calls for an end to almost three years of violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005 -- will be the focus of upcoming meetings by the two sides' leaders with US President George W. Bush.

On Friday, Israeli officials said the government was now considering an expansion of the categories of prisoners to be released to include some Islamic militants, but that no decisions had been made.

Israel's Haaretz newspaper reported Friday that a list of 400 prisoners Israel is considering releasing includes up to 60 from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"We are willing to examine this issue," said a senior official in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official said the releases could be considered by a special Cabinet committee as early as next week. Israeli media said they would be announced after Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas returns from a planned meeting on Friday with Bush.

"What you see in the press may give an indication of the direction things are taking, but there's nothing definite," said a second Sharon adviser, Zalman Shoval.

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