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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 February, 2005, 21:04 GMT
Israel to free 500 Palestinians
Palestinian prisoners inside an Israeli jail
The releases were agreed as part of the ceasefire deal
Israel has approved a list of 500 Palestinian prisoners to be released in coming days, under terms agreed at last week's Middle East summit in Egypt.

Israeli officials described the move as a goodwill gesture to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, after both sides agreed to a ceasefire.

But Palestinians have said the list falls short of expectations.

Later, Israeli sources said the remains of 15 Palestinian militants would be handed over in Gaza on Monday.

The remains of the militants, who are said to have been killed in fighting with Israeli troops, will be given to the Palestinian Authority at the Erez border crossing.

Security officials were also to discuss on Sunday evening the transfer of several West Bank towns to Palestinian control.

The concessions are part of the ceasefire reached between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and also include the repatriation of up to 60 deported Palestinians.

Confidence building

An Israeli official told the Associated Press news agency the prisoners to be freed had not been involved in violent acts against Israelis, and almost all had completed two-thirds of their sentences.

He said violent offenders could be released later if the ceasefire holds.

"If we see that things are positively developing on the ground, there will be other kinds of prisoners that will be presented to [a cabinet] committee," the official said.

Correspondents say that in order to shore up his position, Mr Abbas will need to secure the release of militants serving long sentences for attacks on Israelis, many of whom belong to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Under the agreement, a further 400 Palestinian prisoners are due to be released within three months.

A statement from Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon's office said the release of the Palestinian prisoners could help build confidence between the sides and strengthen Mr Abbas' administration.

However, Palestinians have complained that most of the prisoners are nearing the completion of their sentences and are from Mr Abbas' Fatah movement.

'Unilateral decision'

Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat criticised Israel for carrying out the release without talking to the Palestinians.

"The Israelis are releasing these 500 prisoners in a unilateral decision without consulting us," he said.

"We urge the Israeli government that the next release will be done in total agreement between the two sides and through the ministerial joint committee that will be meeting tomorrow."

The prisoners to be released constitute only a small fraction of the estimated 8,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Palestinians are demanding that all be freed - a demand Israel has refused to meet.

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