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Israeli, Palestinian PMs Slated to Meet on Sunday (REUTERS) By Mohammed Assadi RAMALLAH 07/18/03 08:26 AM ET) Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=worldNews&storyID=3115327
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RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) - Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas plans to meet Israeli leader Ariel Sharon on Sunday and press him to release more Palestinian prisoners, a move Palestinians believe will bolster U.S.-backed peacemaking.
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The talks, which a Palestinian official said on Friday would be held in Jerusalem, will kick off a week of diplomacy in which Abbas and Sharon will make separate trips to Washington to meet President Bush.
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"Prime Minister Abbas will meet Mr Sharon on Sunday. He will press him on the issue of releasing prisoners, freezing Jewish settlement and what Israel calls the security fence," the official said.
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Israeli diplomatic sources said on Thursday that Sharon was considering releasing some Islamic militant prisoners to advance the "road map" to Middle East peace affirmed by the two prime ministers and Bush at a June 4 summit in Aqaba, Jordan.
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Sharon has freed some Palestinian prisoners in recent weeks but has refused to release members of Islamic groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and other attacks in a nearly three-year-old uprising for statehood.
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The Palestinians want him to do so to show his commitment to peace efforts.
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Israeli officials have said a ministerial committee headed by Sharon would convene after his meeting with Abbas and decide whether to set more flexible criteria for releasing prisoners.
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Israel´s Haaretz newspaper said between 40 to 60 members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who have not been involved in attacks on Israelis could be included in a release of some 400 prisoners.
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Leading Palestinian militant groups have declared a three-month truce but are alarmed that Israel continues to arrest their members and have told Abbas he must insist on the release of all 6,000 Palestinian prisoners.
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Sharon, the Israeli officials said, wanted to help the moderate Abbas boost his popularity among Palestinians at the expense of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and could make concessions on the prisoners issue.
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But Sharon has resisted U.S. and Palestinian pressure to reconsider a project now under way to erect a barrier -- concrete walls and electronic fences -- along the porous Israel-West Bank frontier.
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Israel says the fence is necessary to stop suicide bombers reaching its cities. Palestinians condemn the project as an Israeli attempt to grab more occupied land around Jewish settlements and pre-determine a final border.
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The peace plan, which charts reciprocal confidence-building steps leading to creation of a Palestinian state in 2005, also calls on Israel to freeze the expansion of settlements built in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
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Abbas is set to meet Bush on July 25, their first talks in Washington. Sharon will meet Bush four days later, a White House spokesman said.
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In the West Bank, Israeli forces demolished the family homes of two militants who the army said kidnapped an Israeli taxi driver on July 11. Israeli commandos rescued him on Tuesday near the West Bank city of Ramallah. (© Reuters 2003 07/18/03)
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