Palestinian prisoners may be freed before Abu Mazen's US visit

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The Independent Online

Israel said it was considering releasing some Palestinian militant prisoners before Abu Mazen, the Palestinian Prime Minister, visits Washington for talks with President George Bush on Friday.

The announcement was made yesterday as Nabil Amr, the Palestinian Information Minister, said Abu Mazen could be ousted if he returned from America without results. The Prime Minister's ratings remain very low because Palestinians think they have received little from Israel in the renewed peace process.

Although the question of the 6,000 or so Palestinians in Israeli prisons is not in the US-backed road-map to peace, it is an important issue. The three-month ceasefire by the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad was conditional on prisoners being released.

But so far Israel has refused to release members of either group, and is offering to release only prisoners it does not consider to have blood on their hands. Israel said it was prepared to free about 530 prisoners, including 100 Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants who were not connected with the killing of any Israelis.

But Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, said the militants' release would have to be agreed at a further cabinet meeting at the weekend. Palestinians condemned the move as inadequate. "This will harm the political process and lead us to a real ... crisis," said Hisham Abdel Razeq, the Palestinian minister for the prisoners' issue. Hamas warned that the ceasefire could collapse. "Even if one prisoner remains behind bars this means a violation to the truce," said Abd al-Aziz Rantisi, a prominent leader of the group's political wing.

Some have criticised the Palestinians for putting such emphasis on the prisoners while other issues remain unresolved - such as the "security fence" Israel is building in the West bank despite American opposition.

An opinion poll yesterday said 74 per cent of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories would leave if an evacuation was ordered, in return for financial compensation. But 54 per cent said they would legally oppose the order. The findings undermine the opposition of an ideological, vocal minority.