Israel's Olmert delays Palestinian prisoner release

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JERUSALEM, Sep 15 (Reuters) Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert delayed a plan to release from prison scores of members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah movement, Israeli officials said today.

Officials said Olmert had planned to ask the cabinet tomorrow to release more prisoners, but the item was removed from the agenda amid fears it would not garner enough support. Plans to release more prisoners have already been delayed once.

''The cabinet is not going to vote on this tomorrow,'' a spokesman for the prime minister's office said.

One government official, who asked not to be named, said the vote had been delayed because a list of prisoners had not been agreed upon.

Olmert told Abbas at a meeting on Monday he would ask his cabinet to approve the prisoner release as a goodwill gesture for the Ramadan fasting month, which began this week, Palestinian officials said. Israel had been expected to free around 100 Fatah prisoners.

Israel has already freed more than 250 prisoners, mostly Fatah members, as part of a plan to bolster Abbas against Islamist rivals Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in June.

It is unclear whether Olmert has enough support to push through the plan after a series of rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza in recent weeks rekindled calls within the Jewish state for tougher action against militants to curb the salvoes.

The officials said any prisoners to be released would have ''no blood on their hands'' and at least one year left on their sentences. They would be released on condition they signed a document promising not to be involved in violence.

Olmert is engaged in talks with Western-backed Abbas to prepare for a US-sponsored West Asia peace conference expected in November.

The issue of releasing prisoners is highly emotive for Palestinians, who see their some 11,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as fighters for freedom from Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

Reuters SZ VP0040

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