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US Cautions Palestinians on Releasing Militant Prisoner - 2002-06-03

The United States is cautioning the Palestinian Authority not to release from detention, without Israel's concurrence, the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Ahmed Saadat. He is one of six Palestinian militants transferred to a jail in Jericho last month as part of the deal ending Israeli's 34-day siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah.

The transfer of the six Palestinians to Jericho under U.S. and British supervision was part of a deal painstakingly negotiated by senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell. And the State Department is making clear its opposition to Mr. Saadat's release as ordered Monday by the Palestinian High Court in Gaza.

At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said that under the agreement, the status of the six prisoners was to be decided jointly by the Palestinians and Israel. He also questioned the right of the court to intercede in the matter.

"I think it is unclear exactly what standing or authority the Gaza court has in that case," said Mr. Reeker. But I would note, however, that the purpose of the Jericho arrangements was to afford the Palestinians and the Israelis an opportunity to resolve their disagreements over the disposition of all six individuals known as the Jericho Six. And we expect the Palestinians will work with the Israelis, rather than take unilateral steps."

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat would have to endorse the court order to effect the release of Mr. Saadat, who Israel says was involved in the killing last year of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi.

The State Department, meanwhile, also took exception to reported offers by Mr. Arafat to include factions linked to anti-Israeli terrorism in the new Palestinian cabinet he is expected to announce in the next few days. Mr. Reeker questioned how the participation of groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad could advance hopes for peace or the reform of the Palestinian Authority.

"It is hard to see how the inclusion of terrorist groups like Hamas or the PIJ that have been responsible for so much violence could make a positive contribution to the restoration of security, the pursuit of peace or the cause of genuine democratic reform in the Palestinian Authority, which is what we have been talking about," said Mr. Reeker.

Palestinian analysts say Mr. Arafat had hoped through the cabinet overtures to be able to exert control over the radical factions, though Hamas Monday followed the others in spurning the offer to take part in the revamped administration.