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Release of intifada leader in sight, says lawyer

The release of the West Bank leader of Fatah, Marwan Barguthi, during the uprising that broke out in 2000, may become a reality over the next few days, said his lawyer Khader Shkirat on Sunday, as an exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.


AFP - The release by Israel of the mastermind of the second intifada, Marwan Barghuti, who remains revered by many Palestinians for his role in the uprising, has never been closer, his lawyer said on Sunday.

"We have never been closer to an agreement for the release of Marwan Barghuthi," lawyer Khader Shkirat told the privately run Channel 10 television. "It could come in the next few days."

His comments came as the Israeli government maintained its demands for the release by Hamas of captive conscript Staff Sergeant Gilad Shalit and as the Islamist movement which controls Gaza kept up its demands for the release of Palestinian prisoners in return.

The television said that Barghuti, who was the West Bank leader of Fatah during the uprising that broke out in 2000 and is still seen as a leading candidate to take over from Western-backed Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, had been told of his imminent release.

He is likely to be one of the first prisoners released in any exchange for Shalit as a goodwill gesture by Israel to Abbas, the television added.

Even though Barghuti is a key figure in Fatah and seen as the secular movement's principal rival to Hamas in terms of public support, he figures high on the list of prisoners whose release the Islamists have demanded from Israel.

He was detained in April 2003 and given five life sentences in June 2004 after being convicted of masterminding four attacks on Israeli targets.

In the past, Israel has largely refused to free Palestinian prisoners with "Jewish blood on their hands" but a growing number of cabinet ministers have voiced support for releasing Barghuti as part of an exchange for Shalit.

As a prominent leader of Fatah, Barghuti has remained a leading champion of the Middle East peace process, even during his time in Israeli custody.

In April last year, he sent a message of congratulations to the Israeli Peace Now movement on its 30th anniversary saying Palestinians were ready for peace.

"The vast majority of the Palestinian people, myself included, are ready for a historic reconciliation based on international resolutions that will result in the establishment of two states," he said in the letter.

"We are ready for reconciliation that will grant ours and your own children a life devoid of the threats of war and bloodshed ... to this end, we must reach a comprehensive ceasefire as soon as possible."

Educated in political science at Beir Zeit University near Ramallah, and fluent in English and Hebrew, Barghuti spent several of his teenage years in an Israeli jail before being exiled to Tunisia during the first intifada in 1988.

He returned after the Oslo peace accords were signed in 1993 to be elected to the Palestinian parliament in the first poll after the territories were granted autonomy.

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