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Palestinian prisoners released to boost Abbas

 Palestinian prisoners released to boost Abbas
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Hours before the arrival of the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dozens of Palestinian prisoners were freed from Israeli jails in a gesture which might help Middle East peace.

A hundred and ninety nine prisonners were to have been released, but Israel said one was kept in jail over a separate criminal charge.

There are some 11,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, and their release is a highly-emotive issue.

Several cabinet ministers opposed freeing those convicted of attacks on Israelis, but a high-level committee approved their release a week ago.

The group of 198 included the longest-serving prisonner held by Israel. Said al-Atabeh was arrested in 1977 and sentenced to life for a bombing which killed one person and wounded many more.

At the tomb of Yasser Arafat, President Abbas welcomed their freedom, but called on all Palestinians prisonners to be released to help him demonstrate the fruits of peace talks with Israel.

Many of the prisonners were due to have completed their sentences in the next 12 months, but some still had more than five years to serve. Their offences included shooting attacks and stone throwing.

Israel said the releases should support President Abbas, whose Fatah faction has lost ground to its Islamist rival Hamas over the past year, including control of the Gaza Strip.