Release of Palestinian prisoners gets underway

TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel began releasing another 26 Palestinian prisoners Monday night as part of five-month-old peace negotiations with a nine-month deadline.

All 26 prisoners had been transported Sunday to a West Bank military base between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

Five were on their way from the Ofer base to East Jerusalem and three to the Gaza Strip, were they would pass through the Erez crossing after midnight (2200 GMT), Israel Prison Authority spokeswoman Sivan Weizman told dpa.

The rest remained in the Ofer base and would pass through a nearby military checkpoint into Palestinian-controlled territory, for a welcome ceremony at President Mahmoud Abbas' headquarters in Ramallah.

Israel's supreme court earlier Monday rejected a petition against the release by relatives of the militants' victims.

The release is the third since Israel and the Palestinians revived peace negotiations for the first time in years.

Twenty-six prisoners were freed in August, 26 in October and a fourth group is scheduled to go free in March. In total 104 Palestinians jailed since before the 1993 Oslo interim accords will be freed as part of an Israeli gesture agreed to kick-start the negotiations.

Hundreds of relatives of victims of Palestinian attacks and their supporters protested in Jerusalem amid tight security, chanting "No to the release of murderers!" and "Death to terrorists."

They held up portraits of people who were slain by the militants being freed.

Eliezer Amsalem, whose brother was killed in 1992 in Jerusalem by one of the militants going free, said he was disappointed in the Israeli government, telling Channel 2 television: "He will be free, while we continue to suffer? I don't understand."

Hamza Taqtouq, cousin of one of the inmates, waited in Ramallah for the arrival of the 18 prisoners returning to the West Bank.

"We came all the way from Nablus to celebrate the release of Ibrahim," Taqtouq said. "He and all the prisoners are our heroes. They gave their life for their country. We are proud of them."

His cousin was serving life for killing an Israeli soldier in 1989 by throwing a block of concrete onto him from a rooftop, as Israeli troops were chasing stone-throwers in Nablus' Old City.

Most of the 26 inmates were convicted of killing Israeli civilians.

The United States saw the prisoner release as a "positive step forward" in ongoing peace negotiations, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry was to hold meetings this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss ongoing permanent status negotiations.

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