Israel to free Palestinian prisoners for Abbas
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Israel is to release dozens of Palestinian prisoners in a gesture of goodwill to Mahmoud Abbas following a meeting between the Palestinian president and Israeli PM Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. Some 11,000 Palestinians are currently detained in Israel.
Israel agreed on Wednesday to free scores of Palestinian prisoners this month as a gesture to President Mahmoud Abbas and insisted peace talks would go forward despite Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to resign.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said between 120 and 150 prisoners, and possibly more, would be released on Aug. 25. Israel, which has roughly 11,000 Palestinians in custody, declined to provide any details about the prisoner deal.
"In response to a request by Abu Mazen (Abbas)... the Israeli side will be releasing Palestinian prisoners towards the end of August as a sign of good faith and a confidence-building measure towards the Palestinians," Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said after Olmert and Abbas met in Jerusalem.
Erekat said Abbas wanted any release to include long-serving prisoners, women and children as well as political leaders, a reference to uprising leader Marwan Barghouthi, who is seen as a possible successor as president.
"I'm not talking about names," Regev said.
Israeli sources said releasing Barghouthi was an option but stressed that no decisions had been made.
The Hamas Islamist group, which controls the Gaza Strip, included Barghouthi, Hamas leaders and hundreds of other prisoners on its list of Palestinians it wants freed in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured by Gaza militants in a cross-border raid two years ago.
Some Israeli officials see the release of Barghouthi to Abbas as preferable to freeing him to Hamas as part of a deal over Shalit that Egypt is trying to broker.
Israel freed 429 Palestinians as a gesture to Abbas after the resumption of peace negotiations in November at a conference in Annapolis, Maryland.
At their meeting, Olmert and Abbas discussed how to press ahead with the peace talks that had set a goal of reaching a Palestinian statehood agreement by the end of 2008.
But chances of such a deal receded after the prime minister announced last week that he would step down once his centrist Kadima party chooses a new leader in September.
"This process will continue. Both sides, the Israeli and the Palestinian side, are committed to moving forward on the Annapolis track," Regev said.
It could take months for a new Kadima leader to form a new government, leaving Olmert in the role of caretaker prime minister. He has vowed to press ahead with talks with Abbas and indirect negotiations with Syria until he leaves office.
Abbas's authority has been undermined by the violent loss of the Gaza Strip to his Islamist enemies in Hamas, dimming prospects for any statehood deal in the West Bank and Gaza.
Months of meetings, closely shepherded by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have produced little visible progress on key issues such as control of Jerusalem and the future of millions of Palestinian refugees.
The talks have been hampered by continuing violence, mainly in Gaza but also in the West Bank, and by continuing expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
Ahead of the Olmert-Abbas meeting, Israel released five Palestinian teenagers as part of a swap deal with the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas that brought the bodies of two Israeli soldiers home.
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