Israel releases prisoners to Gaza after delay

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EREZ, Gaza Strip, Oct 2 (Reuters) Israel today sent 29 Palestinian prisoners home to the Gaza Strip, touching off celebrations interrupted by Israeli gunfire at a crowd that surged towards a border crossing to greet the men.

A Reuters photographer was hit in the leg, but his injury was not life-threatening.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said soldiers shot in the air towards a group of Palestinians approaching the Erez border terminal, ''and when they didn't stop, they fired at their legs''.

The crowd moved away and continued its celebrations as the prisoners completed the crossing.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to free the group of 29 in an attempt to bolster President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a US-sponsored conference on Palestinian statehood.

Dozens of family members and supporters, some cheering and waving yellow flags of Abbas's secular Fatah movement, had waited for hours to greet the prisoners.

The release gave Fatah a rare opportunity to celebrate since the routing of its fighters by Hamas Islamists in a brief civil war in the Gaza Strip in June.

''Thank God we were released and we hope that all other prisoners from all other factions will be freed,'' said Abdel-Hadi Hassanein, who was freed after serving half of his 14-year sentence for several shooting attacks against soldiers.

Hassanein's four-year-old nephew said: ''He was spared by the Jews. A kiss to Abu Mazen (Abbas), a kiss to my uncle and a kiss to Fatah.'' The prisoners had been due to be freed yesterday, together with 57 jailed Palestinians who live in the occupied West Bank.

PARDONS The Gaza men were held in jail an extra day after Israeli President Shimon Peres delayed signing their pardons. It was unclear why Peres, a strong advocate of peacemaking with Abbas, had delayed issuing the pardons.

The release has stirred domestic opposition in Israel.

In a personal letter quoted in Israeli newspapers, Army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi told Olmert he opposed letting the prisoners go as long as Gaza militants continued to hold Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Shalit was seized by gunmen who tunnelled into Israel in June 2006.

Olmert said he agreed to release only prisoners who did not have ''blood on their hands'', a reference to deadly attacks against Israelis. The prisoners were required to forswear violence in writing as a condition for their freedom.

Olmert and Abbas are to meet in Jerusalem tomorrow to try to narrow differences ahead of the West Asia conference planned for mid-to-late November.

The Israeli leader 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.

Abbas's office had welcomed Israel's decision to release the men 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.

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.

REUTERS ARB KN1733

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