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Israel Releases 429 Palestinian Prisoners

Israel has released 429 Palestinian prisoners, in a bid to boost support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, following the Annapolis Mideast peace conference last week. As VOA's Jim Teeple reports from Jerusalem, Palestinian officials say they would have liked to have seen more prisoners released.

Israeli prison officials say they sent 408 prisoners to the West Bank and 21 to Gaza, saying they have released 770 Palestinians from jails, since July.

Palestinian officials had requested that 2,000 prisoners be released. Ashraf Ajrami, the Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs told the Voice of Palestine Radio that Israel could have done more.

Ajrami calls the Israeli move a unilateral action that does not meet the needs of the Palestinians. He says more prisoners who have served long sentences should also have been released.

Israel holds about 10,000 Palestinians in its jails. Mark Regev a spokesman for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, says Israel wants to help Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, but many Palestinians in Israeli jails have been convicted of serious crimes.

"You know everyone who is sitting in an Israeli jail is there for a reason. And, we have a situation where too many people have been arrested and convicted for crimes against humanity, trying to kill innocent people and all sorts of heinous, terrorist acts," he said.

The prisoner release is the first so-called confidence-building measure taken by Israel since last week's Annapolis Mideast peace conference.

Speaking Sunday, Prime Minister Olmert sought to downplay expectations from the meeting, saying Israel would not commit to a 2008 deadline for a peace agreement, as long as Palestinian militants continue to attack Israelis.

Monday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads Israel's Labor Party, said he supports a measure to compensate Israelis who voluntarily leave settlements in the West Bank. The proposal was condemned by West Bank settler groups, who have also strenuously objected to Prime Minister Olmert's pledge to halt settlement construction in the West Bank.

About 450,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements and in East Jerusalem - land Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.