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Israel frees first batch of Palestinians since accord

"MY SON is 44 years old and has already spent half his life in jail," said Saleh Abdullah Barghouti, an elderly Palestinian in a white headdress, as he waited yesterday outside the Palestinian police headquarters in Ramallah, north of Jerusalem. He was hoping his son, who killed an Israeli in 1978, would be on a bus carrying 50 Palestinian prisoners released from Israeli jails earlier in the morning.

He expected to be disappointed. Ehud Barak, the Israeli Prime Minister, said there would be no Palestinians who killed Israelis among the 200 prisoners to be freed yesterday under the terms of a new deal agreed between Israel and the Palestinians last Saturday.

From early morning, groups of relatives and friends waited to greet the prisoners as they were bussed to Israeli military camps in the West Bank to be handed over to the Palestinian authorities. At Ofer checkpoint, on the outskirts of Ramallah, a small group of Israeli protesters shouted "shame, shame, shame" as they waited for the releases to start. When the first bus appeared, the prisoners inside held up their hands, which were still tied with black flex. An Israeli sat down in the road in front of the bus and was dragged away.

Mr Barak had apparently decided to release the first batch of prisoners - another 150 will be freed later - before Israeli opponents of the agreement could mobilise. He partly succeeded. Meir Indor, head of a group called Victims of Terror, opposed to the releases, was holding a large white placard but had written nothing on it. He said he was thinking of writing: "Arafat is a murderer."

Mr Indor said, correctly, that many of the prisoners released yesterday were in jail for killing Palestinians who collaborated with Israel. He said: "You shouldn't distinguish between those who killed Arabs and those who killed Palestinians."

Marwan Barghouti, a leader in Ramallah of Fatah, the organisation headed by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, said: "These people are prisoners of war. They fought against the Israeli occupation. There is no logic in keeping people in jail who there before the Oslo [peace] accords. You can see the frustration of people here who want to see their relatives released".

Disagreement over the number of Palestinians to be released held up the signing of the accords last week. Mr Arafat needed to show his own supporters that he had fought to the last minute to get prisoners out. They include 200 members of his own organisation.

The prisoners themselves looked tough and confident as they were greeted by a Palestinian band complete with bagpipers. "They told me I was to be released 12 hours ago," said Mahmoud Abu Aesha, a squat, bearded man wearing a Palestinian kefiyeh, as he jumped beaming from a bus. He had just spent seven and a half years in jail for running a Fatah group. He said: "I don't think prison changed me much."

By the end of the day it turned out that only 199 prisoners had been freed. One prisoner, with only a week of his sentence to serve, elected to stay in jail in the vain hope that somebody with a longer sentence could take his place.

As part of the revised agreement, Israel was to hand over civilian control, while remaining in charge of security, in 7 per cent of the West Bank. This does not mean the withdrawal of Israeli soldiers. But Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader, said: "This matters to the Palestinians because Jewish settlers can't move into our land once we have civilian control."