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Sharon: Israel Will Help Abbas

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is renewing his pledge to cooperate with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and says he will release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in the near future.

Prime Minister Sharon told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, that the Jewish state wants to work with the Palestinians to coordinate the coming withdrawal of about 8,500 settlers from the Gaza Strip and a small part of the West Bank.

Mr. Sharon says such coordination can serve as a springboard toward the renewal of peace negotiations.

"I call upon the leaders of the Palestinian Authority to meet the challenge and coordinate the disengagement with us,” he said. “The successful coordination of the disengagement plan will allow us to embark on a new era of trust and build our relations with the Palestinian Authority."

Prime Minister Sharon told members of AIPAC, which is a powerful pro-Israeli lobbying group, that he will ask his cabinet for approval to release 400 more Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Mr. Abbas is due to arrive in Washington later this week for meetings with top government officials, including President Bush.

Both Israel and the Palestinians have agreed to the internationally-backed road map peace plan, but neither side has taken any major steps to implement it.

Prime Minister Sharon says there can be no progress on the road map until Mr. Abbas disarms Palestinian militant groups.

"Terrorist activities have not yet ceased,” he said. “The smuggling of weapons and arms production continues and there is no real prevention of terrorist actions. The progress toward the road map can be achieved only after the terrorist organizations are dismantled."

Mr. Sharon, who met with President Bush last month, says relations between the United States and Israel are stronger than ever before.

A heckler opposed to the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip briefly interrupted the Israeli prime minister's speech.