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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 July, 2003, 17:55 GMT 18:55 UK
Hamas warns on Mid-East truce
Palestinian mother with picture of imprisoned son
Israel is offering to free only a few hundred people
The spiritual leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas has warned that their patience "has its limits" as efforts continue to shore up the ceasefire with Israel.

Sheikh Yassin said Hamas was still committed to the truce but would not retract its demand for the release of all Palestinians held in Israel prisons.

The issue of how many prisoners Israel is willing to release has strained relations at the top of the Palestinian leadership with the prime minister threatening to resign.

The US sought to give the peace process a new boost on Wednesday by announcing $20 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) in recognition of its efforts.

American envoy John Wolf is also in the region for talks on preserving the Bush-backed "roadmap" for peace whilst Egyptian negotiators have been meeting Hamas and other groups.

"Our patience has its limits," said Sheikh Yassin after talks with the Egyptians in Gaza.

The issue of Israel's Palestinian prisoners - thought to number about 7,000 in all - was a "red line which can never be bypassed", he added.

The truce was jolted again by an incident overnight when Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian man outside the West Bank town of Jenin.

Military sources said the man had opened fire on troops as they arrested his brother, a wanted militant.

Prisoner issue

Hundreds of demonstrators marched through Jenin after the shooting bearing photographs of relatives detained in Israel.

"No truce without the release of all prisoners in Israeli jails, without exception," they chanted.

Most of the prisoners were detained during the current Palestinian uprising which began in September 2000.

US envoy John Wolf was expected to urge Israel on Wednesday to release more than the few hundred prisoners it appears willing to free.

He was due to meet Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz after talks with Palestinian security chief Mohammed Dahlan.

Also on the agenda for the Wolf-Mofaz talks, according to Israeli media, was the issue of demolishing illegal Jewish settlements.

Israeli peace activists said on Wednesday that the number of Jewish settler outposts in the West Bank had increased since the Aqaba peace summit in Jordan in June despite Israeli steps to remove some of the settlements.

The Israeli army had dismantled eight outposts but settlers had set up another 10, said a spokesman for Peace Now.

American aid

White House national security spokesman Michael Anton confirmed that $20m would be provided to the PA.

"The funds will be used for humanitarian purposes, to alleviate suffering and to improve the Palestinian economy," he said.

The announcement came hours after Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, threatened to stand down after criticism for failing to secure more prisoner releases.

Mr Abbas - a moderate backed by the United States - has been facing strong pressure from Palestinian leaders seeking a tougher stance towards Israel.

There has been no indication that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, has accepted the offer.

Israel has promised to release some Palestinian prisoners but ruled out letting free militants from the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups.


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