|Palestinians just released from Israeli prisons hang out of a bus window as they are welcomed by family and friends in the West Bank|
Israel is releasing nearly 400 Palestinian prisoners, just three weeks before a scheduled summit between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Mahmoud Abbas.
The prisoners began boarding buses for the ride to various drop off points and their return home to Gaza or the West Bank. They were greeted by cheering relatives as they stepped off the buses. Some of the prisoners kissed the ground, others waved Palestinian flags.
The release has been a long time in coming. According to the overall cease-fire agreement struck between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas at their February summit in Egypt, Israel agreed to release 900 Palestinian prisoners.
Five hundred were released shortly after the summit, but numerous delays kept the rest from being set free. Israel holds about 8,000 Palestinian prisoners
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the release comes at a time of calm. Mr. Olmert told Israel's Army Radio the release is to send a sign of support for the Palestinian Authority.
The release comes three weeks before another summit between Mr. Sharon and Mr. Abbas. Their meeting, scheduled for June 21 has been worked out by senior Sharon aide Dov Weissglass and Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.
Mr. Erekat told Palestinian radio, the summit would focus on various issues - first and foremost how to ensure that Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August becomes part of the "road map" Peace Plan and not a one-time unilateral action.
Palestinians want to resume full negotiations according to the internationally-sanctioned road map, which calls for a number of steps to lead to a final agreement and an independent Palestinian state.
Israel says it supports the road map, but says the Gaza withdrawal, while it may be coordinated with the Palestinians, is a unilateral move that is not part of the road map plan.