Israelis free 57 Palestinians but delay release of 30 more

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Greeted by throngs of jubilant well-wishers, 57 Palestinian prisoners got off buses Monday and kissed West Bank ground after Israel freed them in a goodwill gesture ahead of a US-sponsored peace conference.

But as so often happens in this region, a move meant to bring two sides together was accompanied by a development pulling them apart. Israel announced plans to inaugurate a West Bank police headquarters in an area whose settlement has been blocked by the US, for fear it would complicate the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

An ecstatic crowd of waiting relatives clapped and waved Palestinian flags as the prisoners arrived at the army's Beituniya checkpoint, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, after a two-hour journey from Ketziot prison in southern Israel. The prisoners kissed the asphalt after getting off the Israeli buses, then boarded a Palestinian bus that took them to the tomb of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, where they read from the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

Israel was expected to free 30 Palestinian prisoners in the Gaza Strip on Monday, but the release was delayed until Tuesday morning. Security officials said Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, sent Israeli President Shimon Peres a letter saying it was "immoral" to release prisoners to Gaza while militants there hold Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured in a cross-border raid in June 2006.

Peres, as president, has to authorize sentence commutations, and did not sign off until late in the day. Peres spokesman Yoram Dori refused to comment on the defense officials' report or discuss the delay.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the letter, which was confidential and relayed to Peres via the Defense Ministry.

Among those released in the West Bank was 66-year-old Rakad Salim, who had served five years of an eight-year sentence for distributing millions of dollars from the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to families of Palestinian suicide bombers. Relatives and supporters held up pictures of Saddam and kissed and hugged Salim after he got off the bus.

"I feel that I am a new man, enjoying my freedom," said a smiling Salim. "This release is not enough but we hope it is the beginning of emptying all the (Israeli) prisons."

Israel is holding around 11,000 Palestinian prisoners. Because so many Palestinian families have relatives in Israeli jails, their release is a central Palestinian demand. Monday's release was the second since July, and part of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's strategy to support moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Islamic Hamas militants who seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.

Many of the Palestinians freed yesterday were serving time for militant activity, but none was convicted of killing or injuring Israelis. Most of the 87 slated for release belong to Abbas' Fatah movement; none belong to Hamas.

Hamas dismissed the prisoner release as insignificant.

"We congratulate the prisoners," said Mohammed al-Mudhoun a senior aid to Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Hamas government in Gaza. "We consider this ... a humiliation for the leadership in Ramallah that considers this humble number a great achievement."

A terse statement from Olmert's office said the release of 30 Gaza prisoners would be put off until Tuesday morning. It was not clear what held up the release, or whether all 30 would be freed.