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900 Palestinian Prisoners to Gain Freedom (AP) By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 02/03/05 9:18 AM)Source: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A60083-2005Feb3.html AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS AP} ASSOCIATED PRESS Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM - Israeli Cabinet ministers on Thursday approved the release of 900 Palestinian prisoners and a military pullout from the West Bank town of Jericho within days in overtures intended to improve the climate ahead of next week´s Mideast summit.

The ministers also approved an earlier decision by the army chief to halt the targeted killings of wanted Palestinian fugitives and agreed to form a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee to decide what to do about them.

Palestinians and Israelis both said Thursday they expect next week´s summit in Egypt to produce a truce ending more than four years of violence. A joint declaration of a cessation of violence is one of the first requirements in the internationally backed "road map" peace plan, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state this year.

"We are not talking about peace now, and not about the ´road map,´ but rather about phases that come before implementation of the ´road map,´" Sharon said at Thursday´s meeting, according to participants.

Earlier in the day, both sides sounded optimistic about truce prospects.

"I hope that a cease-fire will be declared, a halt to all violent acts," Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres told Israel Army Radio.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, returning to the West Bank after a five-country trip, said he already has won an agreement from militants to halt attacks, and he expects Israel to respond positively.

"We have announced a cease-fire, and the Israelis should announce one also," he said.

Sharon and Abbas on Wednesday accepted an Egyptian offer to attend a regional summit next week, raising hopes for a breakthrough in Mideast peace efforts. Jordan´s King Abdullah II will also attend.

Next Tuesday´s summit at Egypt´s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheik is to be hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The presence of Egypt and Jordan, both of which have long-standing peace agreements with Israel, would signal firm Arab support for any agreements Sharon and Abbas might reach.

The summit would mark the first Sharon-Abbas meeting since the Palestinian leader won a Jan. 9 presidential election. It also will be the first time Sharon and Mubarak meet.

In Thursday´s meeting, the Cabinet ministers approved the release of 500 prisoners immediately after the summit. An additional 400 prisoners will be freed within three months.

Speaking to reporters in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Abbas said he wanted Palestinians who have served long terms to be included in the first release.

Israel is holding an estimated 7,000 prisoners. In Thursday´s meeting, the Israeli ministers said prisoners convicted in attacks on Israelis would not be released.

The ministers also decided the army would pull out of the quiet desert oasis of Jericho in the coming days, the first of five cities to be vacated by the army in the next few weeks.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the ministers that Bethlehem, Qalqiliya and Tulkarem would be handed over next, and that Ramallah, the Palestinians´ center of government, would be last, participants said.

Israel slowed its planned troop pullback from the West Bank after violence flared earlier this week following a lull. The Palestinians want the towns handed over in one blow, but Israel wants to transfer control one town at a time.

The participants in Thursday´s meeting said the military also would remove some West Bank roadblocks and open the Karni cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel. Karni, Gaza´s lifeline, was closed last month after militants killed six Israelis.

Mofaz emphasized that all the measures are reversible, apparently addressing concerns by hawkish ministers.

The ministers also approved the formation of a joint Israeli- Palestinian committee to decide what to do with Palestinian fugitives.

The Palestinians want Israel to grant amnesty to several hundred fugitives. Israeli security officials said Wednesday that Israel would at least agree to stop its hunt for the wanted men, including those responsible for planning or carrying out attacks on Israelis.

Israeli media focused Thursday on the fate of the No. 1 Hamas fugitive - Mohammed Deif, whom Israel has tried to kill twice, the last time in a 2002 airstrike. Deif is a master bombmaker Israel accuses of being responsible for killing dozens of Israelis.

Later Thursday, Sharon aide Dov Weisglass and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat were to meet to finalize the summit´s agenda.

Erekat said that in addition to the terms of a cease-fire, the sides would discuss the prisoner release, the Israeli military´s redeployment in the West Bank, a provisional amnesty for Palestinian fugitives and Israeli settlement activities.

A group of Palestinian police officers, meanwhile, left to begin training in Egypt, one of Cairo´s moves to help rebuild Palestinian security institutions and prepare them to take over areas of the Gaza Strip set to be vacated by Israel this summer.

And while Palestinians and Israelis were looking for ways to bridge gaps, Israel´s Supreme Court rejected a petition opposing construction of a separation barrier in an area that would cut off part of Bethlehem. The petition was brought by the Bethlehem municipality and 21 other petitioners. (Copyright 2005 Associated Press. 02/03/05)

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