The Israeli government will release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners today as a goodwill gesture for Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's current visit to the United States. Security sources said Tuesday the Israeli Army will free about 150 prisoners from the occupied Gaza Strip and several hundred from the occupied West Bank, as Mr. Shamir begins talks today with the Bush administration. In addition, curfews are to be eased in the territories and more talks scheduled with local leaders.

Palestinians criticized the proposed meetings as an Israeli smoke screen designed to avoid negotiating with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Although ostensibly linked to the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan that starts this week, the Israeli gestures, political sources said, were in fact timed to coincide with Shamir's meeting with Bush.

Shamir is expected to propose elections in the occupied territories to put off US pressure to break the Middle East peace deadlock and curtail the nearly 16-month-old intifadah.

However, Palestinians in the territories have rejected a poll to elect local delegates to peace talks with Israel as an attempt to bypass the PLO.

``I think this is only a way to mislead international public opinion, because elections are something very positive and liberal in the concept of Western democratic societies, and Shamir wants to show the Palestinians are rejecting something democratic,'' nationalist newspaper publisher Ziad Abu Ziad said.

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