Israel frees jailed Palestinians to boost Abbas

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BEITUNYA, West Bank, Oct 1 (Reuters) Israel freed dozens of jailed Palestinians today to try to bolster support for President Mahmoud Abbas against his Islamist rival Hamas ahead of a US-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood.

After several hours' delay, 57 prisoners were taken by bus from the desert stockade of Kitsyot to Beitunya, a military checkpoint on the West Bank boundary, where they were greeted by relatives and supporters.

An additional inmate due for release to the West Bank was kept at Kitsyot for additional vetting, the Prisons Service said. Israel was scheduled to free 29 more prisoners from the Gaza Strip, but these were held back at the last minute.

All 87 men on the release roster were members of Abbas's Fatah or smaller secular factions who were jailed for attacks that did not kill Israelis. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said last week they would be required to forswear violence in writing.

''We are happy to see our sons freed, but we hope that prisoners with longer sentences will be freed as well,'' said Mahmoud Ali, one of the Palestinians waiting at Beitunya.

The release 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 argue that such amnesties encourage Palestinian militants to strike again.

Fatah lost control of Gaza in June to Hamas, which rejects peace efforts with Israel, including the West Asia 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''.

Two Hamas gunmen were killed early today after attacking Israeli soldiers on the Gaza boundary, Hamas said. An Israeli military spokesman said a soldier was slightly hurt.

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

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 difference today is that these issues require decisions, and decisions are made by decision-makers,'' Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told Israel's Army Radio.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said the conference, which representatives of Arab states are expected to attend, was ''preoccupying the entire world''. But she cautioned against discussing details of the agenda 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.'' Abbas's office welcomed today's planned prisoner release but said more needed to be done. The last such gesture by Israel was on July 20, when about 250 prisoners, most of them from Fatah, were freed.

REUTERS SKB BD1833

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