Israel agrees to free 90 Palestinian prisoners

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JERUSALEM, Sep 23 (Reuters) Israel agreed today to free another 90 Palestinian prisoners to try to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a US-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood, officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet approved the move in principle and a ministerial panel finalised the roster. The first releases could begin in 48 hours, officials said.

Olmert's proposal to release Palestinian prisoners for the Muslim fast month of Ramadan had been delayed for two weeks after a series of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip cast doubt on whether he could persuade his cabinet to back the move.

The Israeli government had been expected to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners. Asked about the lower final figure, political sources said several prisoners had not met criteria set by Israel's security services.

''The idea of releasing prisoners is specifically to bolster the moderates,'' said Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin. ''We hope to see additional gestures in the future.'' Israel has agreed to a Palestinian request to allow the deployment of 500 Palestinian police officers within the West Bank city of Nablus to enforce law and order during daylight hours, Israeli defence officials said.

Western diplomats said the decision could lay the groundwork for Israel to give greater security control to the Palestinians in larger parts of the West Bank. The Israeli army would still be able to carry out operations in Nablus, officials said.

Olmert faces growing resistance from within his coalition government to taking more sweeping steps to bolster Abbas in his power struggle with Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip in June.

A month after Gaza's takeover, Israel freed more than 250 Palestinian prisoners, mostly Fatah members.

Abbas's secular Fatah faction still dominates the occupied West Bank but it is struggling to exert security control.

''We simply want to draw a distinction between Hamas and the (Palestinian) Authority'' under Abbas, Israeli Vice Premier Haim Ramon told Army Radio.

EMOTIVE ISSUE The release of prisoners is highly emotive for Palestinians, who see their nearly 11,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as fighters for freedom from Israeli occupation.

Abbas's office welcomed the latest prisoner release but said more needed to be done on the issue. Abbas aide Saeb Erekat said Israel's criteria for releasing prisoners were ''too restrictive'' and should be changed.

Israel said none of the prisoners has ''blood on his hands'', a reference to deadly attacks on Israelis. All detainees must also agree to renounce violence before they are freed.

Israeli cabinet minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch argued against the release of the 90 prisoners. ''For everything we give, we don't get anything in return,'' he said.

The vote followed a visit by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who assured Abbas that Washington wanted the planned West Asia conference to put them firmly on the road towards statehood. The conference is expected to be held in mid-to-late November.

Olmert and Abbas are expected to meet within days to try to narrow their differences over the conference.

Ashraf Ajrami, the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, said the release of 90 prisoners was virtually meaningless given the thousands of Palestinians who remain in Israeli jails.

''Israel is speaking about goodwill but if it wants to show goodwill, it needs to release 1,000 prisoners or more, not 100,'' Ajrami said.

Reuters AB DB2205

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