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Israel to Release 339 Palestinian Prisoners - 2003-08-06

Three hundred thirty-nine Palestinian prisoners are to be released later today, in a long-awaited move aimed at advancing the Middle East peace plan know as the "road map." The prisoners are to be released at four check points, along the so-called green line separating Israel from Palestinian areas.

A smaller group of prisoners -- jailed on non-terror related charges -- is to be released later. Palestinian officials have said Israel can leave those held on criminal charges behind bars.

Palestinian militant groups have rejected the prisoner release and say peace will not come until all of the more than six-thousand Palestinians now in Israeli custody are freed.

A senior official in the militant group Islamic Jihad told VOA that the prisoner exchange is meaningless. Mohammad al Hindi warned that failure to free all Palestinians in Israeli custody could spark a new Intifada. "Sharon creates a new foundation for violence now. Maybe there will be a new Intifada called the prisoner's Intifada," said Mr. Al Hindi.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas held separate meetings Tuesday with Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Mr. Abbas has been working to hold together the ceasefire declared by the main Palestinian militant groups that went into effect at the end of June.

Palestinian officials say the dispute over the prisoner release led to the cancellation of Wednesday's planned talks between Mr. Abbas and his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon.

In another development, Israel has extended its closure of PLO offices in Jerusalem for six more months. Israel first closed the headquarters, known as Orient House, in 2001, saying it was a front for illegal activities.

The U.S. State Department says administration officials are discussing the possibility of reducing U.S. loan assistance to Israel as a penalty for building a fence separating Israel and West Bank Palestinian areas. But a White House spokesman says no decision has been made.

Israel calls the fence a "security barrier" needed to prevent militants from attacking Israelis. Palestinians and other critics say the fence could become the de facto border of a future Palestinian state.

Tuesday, Israeli authorities detained 47 people -- mostly foreign activists -- who were protesting the construction of the fence near Qalqilya. Israeli radio says most of the detainees were later released. An Italian woman was deported.