Barak predicts compromise deal `this week'

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ISRAELI AND Palestinian negotiators were close to a compromise last night that would balance the evacuation of more West Bank territory and the release of Palestinian prisoners with increased co-operation in fighting violent resistance to the Oslo peace process.

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, said: "There is a chance that an agreement will be achieved this week." He suggested that a deal might be ready for signing in Egypt on Thursday with the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, as a witness. She is returning to the Middle East this week for the first time since Mr Barak took office in June.

Palestinian negotiators said the two sides were already drafting the contents. "We hope we will reach agreement today or tomorrow," said Yasser Arafat's security chief, Mohammed Dahlan.

Israel is expected to begin transferring land within 10 days of sealing the agreement and to complete the current phase in January or February. It will also start releasing prisoners. There are signs that these will include some inmates convicted of acts of violence, whom the Palestinians describe as "political" prisoners and the Israelis "security" prisoners.

Under last autumn's Wye Agreement, the former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu undertook to hand over another 13.2 per cent of the West Bank and release 750 prisoners. But implementation was suspended after a small initial withdrawal when Mr Netanyahu was forced by his right- wing coalition partners to call early elections. The Palestinians protested that most of the first batch of freed prisoners were petty criminals.

Israeli officials now recognise that they will have to release some prisoners "with blood on their hands," though these are likely to be accomplices to murder rather than the killers themselves. Most of them will be activists from Mr Arafat's Fatah and allied organisations, who have endorsed the 1993 Oslo accord and have spent years behind bars.

According to Israeli media leaks, by October 1 the Palestinian Authority will complete a plan to confiscate illegal weapons and will furnish Israel with a full list of Palestinian police officers, whose number is suspected of exceeding the Oslo limits. In return, a long-promised corridor for Palestinian traffic between Gaza and Hebron will open on the same date and work will start on a Gaza sea port.

Mr Barak has said all along that he intended to honour the Wye Agreement, but he wanted to revise the evacuation map and link this interim stage to accelerated negotiations for a permanent solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The target, which both sides now seem to have accepted, is a declaration on the principles of a settlement early next year.