Israel frees longest-serving Palestinian prisoner in goodwill gesture before talks

Israel released dozens of Palestinian prisoners yesterday, including Ahmed Jbara, 68, the longest-serving inmate. He hadbeen in jail since September 1976.

The Israeli goodwill gesture was made before a summit in Jordan today between Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Prime Minister, and President George Bush to mark the launch of the American road-map for peace.

Jbara, also known as Abu Sukkar, was convicted and sentenced to 75 years in jail for his role in an attack in 1975 in which a refrigerator rigged with explosives was left in Zion Street in Jerusalem. When the fridge exploded, 13 Israelis were killed and 78 wounded.

He is only the third prisoner convicted of killing Israelis to be released since 1994.

Crowds of jubilant Palestinians hoisted Jbara on to their shoulders on his return to the West Bank from Ashkelon prison in southern Israel. Among those present to greet him was his daughter Futna, 27, born during his imprisonment. Supporters gathered at the Qalandia checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank as Jbara was being taken to a meeting with Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian President, before returning to his home in Tormus Aya, north of Ramallah.

"We are not terrorists. We are not criminals," Jbara said. "We are people seeking peace and freedom."

He called on the Hizbollah leader in Lebanon to free Israeli captives. "I call on Sheik Nasr-allah to release all Israeli prisoners, because I know what it feels like to be in prison," he said.

Jbara joined the Fatah movement in Jordan after stints working in South America and the United States. He returned to the West Bank in the early 1970s.

Mr Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, last week asked Mr Sharon to release Jbara. Yesterday Israel also released 8 detainees from Naqab prison. Among those freed was Taysir Khaled, a senior official in the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. His release had also been requested by the Palestinian Prime Minister.

About 100 prisoners being held without charge were also released from three military prisons.

According to the daily Yediot newspaper, Mr Abbas told the Israeli Prime Minister: "If you really want me to succeed, if you are really concerned about changing Palestinian public opinion towards Israel, you should release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.''

There are almost 7,500 Palestinian prisoners in 22 Israeli prisons, detention centres and military encampments, including 1,500 who have been in jail since before the 1993 Oslo accords.

During the past three years, about 500 Palestinians have been jailed, accused of mounting or organising military attacks and killing Israelis.

After the Oslo accords, Israel released about 10,000 prisoners.

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