Israel to free prisoners as Syria talks resume

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Israel yesterday completed its withdrawal from the six West Bank cities due to be handed over to Yasser Arafat's National Authority before next month's Palestinian elections. The last and most contentious major centre, Hebron, will follow in March.

A first detachment of Palestinian police took control of Ramallah, the home town of Mr Arafat's wife, Suha. Some 18 miles north of Jerusalem, Ramallah is expected to join Gaza City as the Palestinians' interim capital, though the long-term goal is still to establish a permanent capital in Jerusalem.

Young Palestinians sped the last Israeli police jeep out of Ramallah with a barrage of stones, firing into the air as the Star of David was lowered from the police station.

The Israeli army announced yesterday that it had completed a list of 1,000 Palestinian security prisoners (of the 5,000 it is still holding) who will be released next week. The Prime Minister, Shimon Peres, has agreed also to a request from Mr Arafat to expand the legislative council to be elected on 20 January from 82 to 89 members. However much Israel may deny it, the council looks more and more like the parliament of a state in the making.

An ominous sign of the kind of state it might be was given on Monday, when Palestinian police arrested the duty editor of al-Quds, the largest- circulation Palestinian daily paper. Maher al-Alami was taken from his Jerusalem home to the West Bank police headquarters in Jericho. His offence was to relegate to an inside page a story lauding Mr Arafat's relations with the Christian world.

Peace talks between Israel and Syria resumed outside Washington yesterday. The Israelis are looking less for an immediate breakthrough than for an indication of the kind of peace President Hafez al-Assad has in mind.

Mr Peres, who was always more optimistic and less patient than his assassinated predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin, has been encouraged by a more conciliatory tone from Damascus. "It is not peace yet," he told an audience of Israel's Arab citizens on Monday, "but the tone sets the music". He added: "We have never had better music than we have now."

Israel has signalled its readiness to evacuate most of the Golan Heights, occupied since 1967, but only in return for "full peace", including diplomatic relations and open borders. The army is arguing against taking the risk of coming down from the strategic plateau for anything less.

The Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Amnon Shahak, explained to the parliamentary foreign affairs and defence committee on Monday: "When it is necessary to fight, there is great importance to territory.

"There is a big difference between launching the fight from the Huleh Valley [in northern Israel] or from Kuneitra [on the Golan]. When we are talking about peace, we need to know which peace and what are its characteristics."

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