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Israel frees 159 prisoners

December 28, 2004

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RAMALLAH, Dec 27: Israel freed 159 Palestinian prisoners on Monday as a gesture to Egypt and moderate new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, but he called for a "serious release" of thousands of security detainees.

Mr Abbas, trying to persuade Palestinian militants to stop fighting to help revive talks on Palestinian statehood with Israel, has made prisoner releases part of his campaign for a Jan 9 presidential election after Yasser Arafat's death.

Palestinian leaders welcomed the release, but said the move fell far short of their demands. Most Palestinians regard jailed compatriots as heroes of their struggle for independence, and a broader prisoner release could strengthen Mr Abbas's hand to rein in militants who reject a ceasefire, with some sworn to destroying Israel.

Many of those freed to tearful reunions with loved ones were nearing the end of their sentences and had been jailed for membership in militant groups. Few had taken part in armed attacks on Israelis.

"I respect the release of every prisoner, but we need a serious release process," Abbas told reporters in Ramallah. "What is required is freedom for all political prisoners, to give meaning to this," Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie said.

More than 7,000 Palestinians - from teenagers up to the former mainstream Fatah movement leader in the West Bank, Marwan Barghouthi - are imprisoned in Israel, their numbers swollen since a revolt broke out in occupied territories four years ago.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had promised the release to President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt after it freed an alleged spy for Israel jailed in 1997. Mubarak, a key regional mediator, had also sought Israeli signals of goodwill to bolster Abbas.

Israel vows not to free prisoners with "blood on their hands" - those jailed, according to Israel, for planning or carrying out attacks that have killed Israelis. Buses carried the released Palestinians from two prisons in Israel to several border crossings with the West Bank and Gaza 'where they were mobbed in joyous family reunions. -Reuters