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Sharon May Free Some Islamists, Israeli Sources Say (REUTERS) By Dan Williams JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 07/17/03 11:54 AM ET) Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=worldNews&storyID=3109623
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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is considering releasing some Islamic militant prisoners to advance a U.S.-backed "road map" to peace with the Palestinians, Israeli diplomatic sources said Thursday.
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Sharon has freed some Palestinian prisoners in recent weeks but has refused to release any militants. The Palestinians want him to do so to show his commitment to peace efforts.
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Sharon and Abbas hope to make progress on the prisoners issue at a meeting next week before each travels to Washington for separate talks with President Bush, whose increased role in peacemaking has fueled cautious optimism.
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The Israeli diplomatic sources said Sharon was considering making a gesture of good will by releasing several hundred militants who did not have a direct role in attacks on Israelis in the more than 33- month-old uprising for independence.
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"The prime minister is thinking of expanding the criteria as a goodwill gesture," one source said.
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The Palestinian leadership welcomed the report. "If this is true, this would be a positive step and we consider it helpful to maintaining the calm," said Information Minister Nabil Amr.
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Israel fears that releasing men "with blood on their hands" would set back peace efforts. Palestinians, bound by clan ties and suffering economically from the loss of their menfolk in the conflict, say a broad amnesty is crucial to peace hopes.
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MILITANTS RESTATE DEMANDS
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Abbas and Sharon have accepted the road map, drawn up by the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union. It sets out reciprocal steps to end violence and establish a Palestinian state beside Israel in 2005.
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Progress has proven difficult. Leading Palestinian militant groups have declared a three-month truce but, alarmed that Israel continues to arrest their members, have told Abbas he must insist on the release of all 6,000 Palestinian prisoners.
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"Freedom of prisoners must not be tied to and governed by the good or bad intentions of Israel," said Mohammed al-Hindi of Islamic Jihad, a group which has carried out suicide bombings. "All prisoners must eventually be freed."
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The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed group which has links with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat´s Fatah movement, said that if Israel continues to arrest its members "we will end the truce and our retaliation will be severe."
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The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades took responsibility for a fatal stabbing by a Palestinian in Tel Aviv Tuesday. Some of its members support the three-month truce, others oppose it.
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The army said it had arrested seven more suspected militants in the West Bank overnight.
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Tensions have simmered despite the cease-fire and a limited Israeli troop withdrawal from parts of the Gaza Strip and from the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
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Abbas has hesitated to confront militants for fear of civil war. Even his decision to travel to Washington for his first talks with Bush on July 25 drew censure from Palestinians suspicious of the United States, Israel´s key ally.
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"We do not rule out the possibility that Bush will put pressure on Abu Mazen (Abbas) to crack down on Palestinian (militant) factions," said Abdallah al-Shami of Islamic Jihad.
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Sharon is also due to visit Bush at the end of this month, but Israeli officials say he is unlikely to overlap with Abbas. (© Reuters 2003 07/17/03)
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