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Trying to restart peace talks, Israel returns Palestinian militants remains

The Israeli government turned over the remains of over 90 Palestinian militants on Thursday. The militants had been killed trying to carry out attacks on Israeli targets, some dating back over 30 years.

By Ibrahim Barzak and Mohammed DaraghmehAssociated Press / May 31, 2012

Palestinians gather as a convoy transferring coffins containing the remains of the bodies of Palestinian militants, enters near Erez Crossing between Israel and northern Gaza Strip May 31, 2012. The remains of 91 Palestinian militants whose attacks killed hundreds of Israelis were returned to the West Bank and Gaza on Thursday in a gesture Israel said it hoped could help revive peace efforts.

Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/REUTERS

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Gaza City, Gaza Strip

Israel on Thursday handed over to the Palestinian government the remains of 91 militants, including suicide bombers, in an effort to induce Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to renew long-stalled peace talks.

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All 91 were killed carrying out attacks on Israeli targets, Palestinian officials said. At least one of the attacks dated back to the 1970s.

The bodies had been buried in coffins in Israel and were dug up for the transfer. The Palestinian official in charge of Thursday's transfer, Salem Khileh, said Israeli officials handed over the remains to Palestinian liaisons in the Jordan Valley.

Seventy-nine bodies were then transported to Ramallah, and 12 to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

Dozens of armed Islamic Jihad fighters and families holding framed pictures of their dead relatives welcomed the 12 coffins as they entered Gaza, draped with Palestinian national flags.

Women ululated, and threw rice and sugar over the coffins. Hamas police officers fired 21 shots into the air in salute.

Two armed men, clad in black uniforms and bandanas, kissed the forehead of a suicide bomber's mother as the vehicle carrying his body arrived. Her 21-year-old son, Ramzi Obaied of Islamic Jihad, killed 24 Israelis in a 1996 attack in Tel Aviv.

"My son was a hero," said the black-clad woman, who identified herself as Um Hidar. "The enemy feared him even after his death, for they kept his body."

Mirvat Zaoul's husband, Mohammed Zaoul, killed four Israelis in a 2004 suicide attack in Jerusalem. She said she thought her 11-year-old son would be sad to hear that his father's remains would be returned to the West Bank.

"But he was happy," she said. "He said, 'I'm going to visit his grave every day and put a flower there for him.'"

Palestinian government ceremonies honoring the dead militants were to be held in the West Bank and Gaza later Thursday.

"We hope that this humanitarian gesture will serve both as a confidence-building measure and help get the peace process back on track," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said.

"Israel is ready for the immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions whatsoever," Regev added.

Abbas has given no sign that the gesture would persuade him to return to talks.

On Thursday, he said the "major obstacles to resuming negotiations" were Israel's refusal to freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and to negotiate on the basis of the lines Israel held before capturing those territories in 1967.

Palestinians see those areas as the core of a future state that would also include Gaza.

Israel rejects that demand. Israeli-Palestinian talks stalled more than three years ago and have failed to take off again despite U.S. mediation, primarily because of the dispute over settlement construction.

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