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Israel Approves West Bank Pullback, Prisoner Release (REUTERS) By Jeffrey Heller JERUSALEM, ISRAEL Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza 02/03/05 11:34 PM ET)Source: http://www.reuters.com/newsArticle.jhtml?type=topNews&storyID=7534912 Reuters News Service Reuters News Service Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel on Thursday approved a troop pullback from West Bank cities and the release of 900 Palestinian prisoners, measures crucial to the success of a summit with the Palestinians in Egypt next week.

Both sides said they hoped to declare a formal halt to violence at the talks in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh next Tuesday, which will mark a dramatic return to peacemaking after more than four years of bloodshed.

As part of a confidence-building package to be presented at the summit, Israel will carry out a phased military pullback from positions around five Palestinian cities in the West Bank and free 900 prisoners, cabinet officials said.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and top cabinet ministers approved the steps at a 4-1/2-hour meeting in Tel Aviv.

In a sign of potential difficulties ahead, Israeli-Palestinian talks on the actual prisoner release broke up later over the issue of whether prisoners jailed for causing the deaths of Israelis would be among those freed.

The release of some 8,000 prisoners held by Israel including Islamic militants is key to attempts by the new Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to consolidate power, end bloodshed and revive a U.S.- backed peace "road map" peace plan.

Palestinian Cabinet Minister Saeb Erekat said he asked Sharon aide Dov Weisglass at a Tel Aviv meeting to free Palestinians jailed for attacks before a 1993 peace deal.

Weisglass replied that Israel "has no intention to change a decision against freeing any terrorists with blood on their hands," and the meeting broke up, political sources said.

Hassan Abu Libdeh, chief of staff to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, told Reuters the Feb. 8 summit could fail if the prisoner dispute was not resolved and that "Israel would be held responsible."

GUNMEN WOUND 6 ISRAELIS

Two weeks of calm in the occupied territories was shattered later on Thursday when Palestinian gunmen shot and wounded six Israeli soldiers in separate attacks in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, an Israeli military source said.

Israel Radio said the troops fired back and killed a gunman after the attack at the Orchan junction in Gaza, in which two Israeli soldiers were hurt.

In the West Bank, a gunman shot and wounded four Israeli soldiers, one seriously, near a Jewish settlement south of Hebron, the army said.

Israel arrested a Palestinian teenager at a West Bank roadblock with a suspicious bag containing an explosives belt for a suicide attack, which they later detonated safely at the site, Israeli military officials said.

Sharon´s office reaffirmed his position that "there can be no progress without a complete cessation of terrorist acts and violence and the dismantlement of terrorist infrastructure."

Abbas has said he wants to co-opt rather than crush militants to avoid civil unrest, and Palestinian officials have demanded greater Israeli compliance with road map obligations including a halt to expansion of settlements in the West Bank.

The Israeli plan also calls for its troops to pull back from the West Bank city of Jericho after the summit then withdraw, over two-week intervals, from areas around Tulkarm, Bethlehem, Qalqilya and Ramallah.

In addition, an Israeli-Palestinian committee will be formed to agree a list of militants who will be struck off Israel´s most-wanted list in return for a halt to attacks on Israelis.

Israel will also open all the Gaza Strip border crossings it has closed in response to strikes by militants.

The summit, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and attended by Sharon, Abbas and Jordan´s King Abdullah, will aim to extend the lull in violence by embarking on mutual steps charted by the road map toward Palestinian statehood.

"I hope there will be an official declaration of an armistice, on the cessation of all acts of violence," Vice Premier Shimon Peres said on Army Radio. (Additional reporting by Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza) (© Reuters 2005 02/03/05)


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