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Olmert pushes ahead on Palestinian, Syrian peace tracks

Israel to release up to 150 Palestinian prisoners later this month.

By Adam EntousReuters / August 7, 2008



Jerusalem

Despite Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision to resign, the peace process continues on several tracks.

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Israel agreed on Wednesday to free scores of Palestinian prisoners this month as a gesture to President Mahmoud Abbas. Separately, a senior Syrian official told Reuters that indirect talks between Syria and Israel will continue.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said between 120 and 150 prisoners, and possibly more, would be released on Aug. 25. Israel has roughly 11,000 Palestinians in custody.

"The Israeli side will be releasing Palestinian prisoners towards the end of August as a sign of good faith and a confidence-building measure towards the Palestinians," Mr. Olmert's spokesman, Mark Regev, said after Olmert and Mr. Abbas met in Jerusalem.

Mr. Erekat said Abbas wanted any release to include long-serving prisoners, women, and children, as well as political leaders, a reference to Marwan Barghouti, who is seen as a possible successor as Palestinian president.

Israeli sources said that releasing Mr. Barghouti was an option. The Hamas Islamist group, which controls the Gaza Strip, has included Barghouti, as well as Hamas leaders and hundreds of other prisoners on its list of Palestinians it wants freed in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured in a cross-border raid two years ago.

Some Israeli officials see the release of Barghouti to Abbas as preferable to freeing him to Hamas in a deal over Corporal Shalit that Egypt is trying to broker.

Israel freed 429 Palestinians as a gesture to Abbas after the resumption of peace negotiations in November at a conference in Annapolis, Md.

At their meeting Wednesday, Olmert and Abbas discussed how to press ahead with the peace talks that had set a goal of reaching a Palestinian statehood agreement by the end of 2008. Olmert has vowed to press ahead with talks with Abbas and indirect negotiations with Syria until he leaves office.

The Syrian talks have made progress but not enough to move to face-to-face talks as favored by the Jewish state, a senior Syrian official said Wednesday. "If the talks had not progressed then they would have been stopped," said Buthaina Shaaban, who was recently promoted to adviser to President Bashar al-Assad.

A fourth round of talks between Israel and Syria took place last week. The fifth round is expected later this month.

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