Israel freeing 87 jailed Palestinians to aid Abbas

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KITSYOT, Israel, Oct 1 (Reuters) Israel's release of 87 jailed Palestinians, aimed at strengthening Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, ran into a delay today but an Israeli official said the prisoners would go free within hours.

The prisoners, members of Abbas's Fatah or smaller secular factions, were led in handcuffs out of the desert stockade of Kitsyot onto buses that were to have headed to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Sources at the prison said the buses did not leave as planned at dawn and the men were taken back to their cells.

''The prisoner release has been delayed because of technical reasons, but it will be completed by this afternoon,'' an Israeli government official said, giving no further details.

The freeing of prisoners is highly emotive for Palestinians, who see their nearly 11,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as fighters against foreign occupation. Many Israelis say such amnesties encourage Palestinian violence.

''I hope there will be peace and quiet,'' one Gazan inmate told Reuters Television while waiting to leave Kitsyot.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is to meet Abbas on Wednesday to discuss their peacemaking agendas, said last week that only prisoners ''without blood on their hands'' -- a reference to deadly attacks against the Jewish state -- and willing to sign a document renouncing violence would be freed.

Fatah lost control of Gaza in June to Hamas Islamists, who reject peace efforts with Israel, including the West Asian conference planned for mid-to-late November under US auspices.

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said Israel's prisoner releases ''aim to bolster internal Palestinian divisions and brighten the image of the occupation in world public opinion''.

Palestinians are divided on whether the talks will bring them closer to statehood. Olmert wants them to produce a broad-brush joint statement, while Abbas seeks an explicit ''framework'' agreement with a timeline for implementation.

COMMON GROUND It is unclear to what extent Olmert is prepared to meet Abbas's call to tackle ''final status'' issues key to establishing a Palestinian state: border-setting, the future of Jerusalem and the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees.

''These issues have been discussed (in the past) ... and I think the the difference today is that these issues require decisions, and decisions are made by decision-makers,'' Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereket told Israel's Army Radio.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the conference, which representatives of Arab states are also expected to attend, was ''preoccupying the entire world''. But she also cautioned against any detailed agenda discussions in public.

''Our role, and that of the Palestinians, is to find the broadest possible common ground,'' Livni told Israel Radio.

''If there is something that harms negotiations, it is to let the other side get the idea before he even enters the room that he can get all sorts of things,'' she said. ''The idea is not only to make brave decisions, but also to negotiate wisely.'' Olmert has been weakened domestically since last year's war in Lebanon. Abbas has found his mandate effectively cut down to the Israeli-occupied West Bank since his schism with Hamas.

Abbas's office welcomed the planned prisoner release but said more needed to be done on the issue. The last such gesture by Israel was on July 20, when some 250 prisoners, most of them from Fatah, went free.

Twenty-nine of the 87 prisoners today's release roster come from Gaza and the others from the West Bank.

Israel had been expected to release more than 100 Palestinian prisoners. Political sources said several prisoners had not met criteria set by the security services.

REUTERS SKB KN1436

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