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Israel urged to free militants

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Israel urged to free militants

From correspondents in Jerusalem

July 08, 2003

PALESTINIAN ministers warned their Israeli counterparts today that the peace process would be damaged if members of radical groups were not freed from prison, amid further signs of a thaw in relations between the two sides.

Prisoner affairs minister Hisham Abdelrazeq told Israeli Justice Minister Tommy Lapid that the release of such prisoners, which has so far been ruled out by Israel, would help strengthen the government of prime minister Mahmud Abbas.

"The release of long-term prisoners from Hamas and Islamic will help our government and strengthen it," said Abdelrazeq.

The Israeli cabinet narrowly approved a decision yesterday laying the groundwork for around 350 Palestinian detainees to be freed.

But it also set strict criteria for the releases, including stipulations that none of them should have "blood on their hands" or belong to "terrorist organisations".

The criteria effectively rules out the immediate release of members of groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad despite the agreement of the two movements to call a halt to anti-Israeli attacks.

"If the decision isn't changed it will have a bad effect on the process," Abdelrazeq added.

The Palestinians have insisted Israel must be prepared to release all of the estimated 6,000 prisoners currently in detention, but Lapid poured cold water on such hopes.

"We will not release soldiers who participated in the war to destroy Israel," said the Israeli minister.

Lapid met Abdelrazeq and Palestinian justice minister Abdelkarim Abu Salah in his Jerusalem office in what was the latest round of bilateral talks which have taken place here in recent days as a US-backed peace roadmap gathers momentum.

And in a bid to encourage further dialogue, Lapid, who is leader of the secular Shinui party, invited Palestinian prime minister Abbas and his security chief Mohammed Dahlan to hold talks with factions in the Israeli parliament.

More proof of the new atmosphere of cooperation came as Palestinian information minister Nabil Amr and Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom held the first meeting of a joint committee set up to prevent incitement to violence.

Shalom welcomed recent progress made by the Palestinians on stripping anti-Israeli incitement from textbooks and the media.

The Palestinians' determination that rejectionists should not derail the peace process was underlined early today with the arrest of an 18-year-old woman who had left a note for her parents saying that she was to carry out a suicide bombing, Palestinian sources said.

The teenager was arrested near the Karni bus station between the Gaza Strip and Israeli territory, one source said.

A belt laden with explosives was found at the home of the unnamed teenager. No details were given as to which organisation she was working for.

A local leader of Islamic Jihad was also arrested by Israeli troops near the West Bank town of Jenin early today, prompting a threat from the radical movement to resume its attacks.

Hassan Khamaisseh was detained by soldiers in a dawn operation at Qabatyeh, near the West Bank town of Jenin, Islamic Jihad official Sheikh Bassam Saadi said.

"If the raids continue, Jihad will stop respecting the truce," Saadi warned.

Palestinian security sources also said Israeli troops raided the nearby militant stronghold of Tubas in a failed bid to capture the local leader of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, an armed offshoot of Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah party.

Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades has a loose hierarchical structure and despite a statement in the name of the group vowing to respect the truce, some local branches have stressed they were not bound by the announcement.

Attacks on Israeli targets also continued with the army reporting that troops manning a border position with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip had to withstand a barrage of 70 grenades, a military source said.

No injuries were reported while the Israeli troops had not returned fire during the barrage which lasted some three hours in the afternoon at the post near the town of Rafah, the source added. No-one has been arrested.

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