Palestinians object to prisoner-release offer

ATTEMPTS TO prepare the ground for next week's Middle East summit ran into trouble last night when the two sides disagreed sharply over a new Israeli plan to release up to 900 Palestinian prisoners.

A meeting to discuss the question of which prisoners should be released broke up without agreement after Palestinian officials objected to Israeli insistence that the released prisoners should not include militants whom they say have "blood on their hands".

The decision to release the prisoners had been announced earlier in what Israeli officials described as a move designed to help "jump start" a peace process ahead of next Tuesday's summit between Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister and Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian President. Israeli officials had said that the first 500 could be released soon after the summit in Sharm El-Sheikh but the release of a further 400 was likely to be dependent on the new Palestinian leadership taking active steps to prevent future militant violence.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian cabinet minister, said last night after meeting Dov Weisglass, Mr Sharon's most senior aide, that the talks had foundered over the request from Mr Abbas for former militants detained before the first Oslo agreement in 1993 to be included among those released.

The request echoes that made by Mr Abbas in 2003 when he was prime minister and asked for 500 prisoners in the pre-Oslo category to be released. Mr Abbas argued then that it was illogical to exclude men who had already served long sentences and had been convicted for carrying out orders from those with whom Israel was seeking agreement - including Mr Abbas himself.

Mr Erekat said: "It was a difficult meeting. There is a new Palestinian President and the Israelis should be giving him a boost. We have said we are ready to discuss this at any time and we urged the officials to go back to their Prime Minister." Israeli officials had earlier projected the decision as a "painful concession", which had followed an intense debate among cabinet ministers.

Gideon Meir, deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry, declared: "The Prime Minister is going the extra, extra mile, to try and get the peace process back on track."

The fragility of the truce was further underlined yesterday when four Israel Defence Forces soldiers were wounded after militants opened fire on their jeep near the West Bank settlement of Eshkolot, southwest of Hebron. Earlier, a Palestinian militant was killed after what the Army said was a grenade and shooting attack on a military jeep which left two other soldiers wounded.

Israeli troops stationed at the Hawara checkpoint near the West Bank city of Nablus arrested a 16-year-old Palestinian whom they said had been carrying an explosives belt in a bag. They said the boy had said it was for a suicide attack.

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