Israel begins release of 29 prisoners to Gaza

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JERUSALEM, Oct 2 (Reuters) Israel today began releasing 29 Palestinian prisoners to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in an attempt to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a US-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood.

''The prisoners are on their way to the Erez border crossing'' with Gaza, an Israeli Prisons Service spokesman said.

The Gazan prisoners were expected to be sent home yesterday, together with 57 prisoners who live in the occupied West Bank, but the Gaza residents were held in jail an extra day after Israeli President Shimon Peres delayed signing their pardons.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's plan to release Gaza prisoners has stirred domestic opposition.

In a personal letter quoted in Israeli newspapers, Army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told Olmert he opposed the prisoners' release as long as Gaza militants refused to release captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Shalit has been held in Gaza since his capture in June 2006.

Israel agreed to free a total of 87 prisoners who were members of Abbas's Fatah or smaller secular factions who had been jailed for attacks that did not kill Israelis. Each was required to forswear violence in writing.

The Gaza prisoners were released one day ahead of a planned meeting between Olmert and Abbas in Jerusalem aimed at narrowing differences over the West Asia conference planned for mid- to late November.

Olmert had promised to free prisoners last month as a gesture to Abbas. The move was delayed in part due to opposition within the Israeli government fuelled by a series of rocket attacks by Gaza militants.

The release of prisoners is highly emotive for Palestinians, who regard their nearly 11,000 brethren held in Israeli jails as fighters against foreign occupation.

One of the inmates due to be released to the West Bank has been kept at a holding centre for additional vetting, the Prisons Service spokesman said.

Fatah lost control of the Gaza Strip in June when Hamas Islamists, who reject peace efforts with Israel, took it over by force.

REUTERS ARB PM1450

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