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Palestinian, Israeli PMs Discuss Prisoner Release


Israel will announce later this week a decision on whether to release more Palestinian prisoners. The issue was discussed during more than two hours of talks between the Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas.

During his talks with Mr. Sharon, Mr. Abbas demanded the release of more Palestinian prisoners and asked for Israeli troops to withdraw from Palestinian self-rule areas of the West Bank.

In addition, Mr. Abbas demanded that Israel lift its siege of the headquarters of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Israel's decision on the release of Palestinian prisoners is to be announced only after the ministerial committee in charge of the issue meets Wednesday.

Officials in Mr. Sharon's office told reporters that the government will make a distinction between Palestinian prisoners who were convicted in a court of law and what it calls "administrative detainees." The officials said Palestinian detainees, including members of Islamic militant groups, could be set free, provided they were not suspected of involvement in murder.

Palestinian officials claim that Israel is holding 8,000 Palestinian prisoners. Israel says the number is closer to 6,000.

The Palestinian Authority says the release of more prisoners is vital for maintaining a three-week-old truce by Palestinian groups.

Israel media reported that Mr. Sharon might consider releasing thousands of Palestinian prisoners in the future. This would be on condition that the Palestinian Authority agrees to halt attacks by Palestinian militant groups against Israelis.

Following his talks with Mr. Sharon, Mr. Abbas was expected to travel to Jordan and Egypt for talks with officials on ways to move the peace process forward.

On Friday, Mr. Abbas is to meet President George W. Bush at the White House. A few days later, Mr. Bush is scheduled to hold a separate meeting with Mr. Sharon. The meetings are aimed at promoting the international "road map" Middle East peace plan, which calls for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state by 2005.