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Israel to Release Some Prisoners, Withdraw from Parts of West Bank

Israel has agreed to release 900 Palestinian prisoners and to withdraw its troops from parts of the West Bank. The decision comes just days before Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visits the region for talks and ahead of a planned Israeli-Palestinian summit next Tuesday.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his top ministers approved the release of 900 Palestinian prisoners as part of a package of goodwill gestures. Some 500 of those prisoners are expected to be released next week.

The ministers also agreed on details of a plan to pull troops out of five West Bank cities, beginning with Jericho in the coming days and subsequent withdrawals from Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Qalqilya, and Ramallah.

These are considered key conciliatory gestures prior to next Tuesday's Israeli-Palestinian summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

The summit, hosted by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, will bring together Prime Minister Sharon, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel radio he hopes the current atmosphere might also allow for better ties with Egypt and Jordan and maybe provide similar openings to others in the region.

"I believe that Egypt and Jordan will send back their ambassadors to Israel," said Silvan Shalom. "They will enable many other Arab countries to send their representatives. These Arab countries were looking for a long time for the appropriate time for them."

Israel and the Palestinians have moved to ease tensions with conciliatory gestures since President Abbas' election victory in early January. Mr. Abbas has coaxed Palestinian militant groups toward a truce and deployed security forces in Gaza to prevent militant attacks against Israelis.

Israel said it would respond in kind if calm prevailed. Earlier Thursday, senior Israeli and Palestinian officials said they hope they might be able to announce a formal cease fire at the summit.

Leaders from both sides also meet separately early next week with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice when she visits the region.