Israel, PLO Reach Deal on Release of Prisoners

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have reached an understanding on an initial release of Palestinian prisoners.

After a day of talks in the Egyptian border town of Taba, the two sides reportedly agreed on the release of sick, aged and young prisoners.

The release of prisoners, expected to begin next week, was intended to demonstrate to the Palestinian people some immediate results from the self-rule accord signed last month in Washington by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Though the number of prisoners to be released was not disclosed, sources among the Taba delegates said the first release would total about 1,000 Palestinians.

There had been reports that Israel was planning a massive prisoner release, and the Palestinians originally had demanded the release of 12,000 it said were being held in Israeli prisons for security reasons.

But both sides have agreed that the release will come in stages throughout the five-year interim autonomy period.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, speaking to reporters during a visit to the Gaza Strip town of Khan Yunis, said prisoner releases would proceed in accordance with progress in the negotiations.

Israel and the PLO, Rabin said, are committed to negotiating the implementation of the self-rule accord within two months — the timetable mandated by the declaration of principles that forms the backbone of the accord.

Rabin warned that there would be ups and downs in the talks, but he seemed confident the parties could meet the deadline.

RABIN SAYS NUMBERS WERE EXAGGERATED

One snag was encountered Thursday on the issue of security in the territories. According to the agreement, Israeli forces must withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho by mid-April.

Senior Palestinian delegate Nabil Sha’ath told reporters that Israeli proposals on security in the two regions meant the perpetuation, in effect, of the current Israel Defense Force “occupation.”

The head of the Israeli delegation, Gen. Amnon Shahak, sought to cool the atmosphere by telling reporters that differences were to be expected. He urged members of the media covering the negotiations not to “take the temperature” of the talks every half-hour.

“You will all be invited to the signing ceremony,” the IDF deputy chief of staff said.

Later Thursday, the atmosphere at the talks reportedly improved, with word leaking out of an imminent first release of Palestinian prisoners.

Rabin said Israel holds 9,500 prisoners and security detainees. He said other published figures were wrong, misleading and harmful to the negotiations.

Some reports have put the total at as high as 14,000 prisoners.

Rabin enjoyed the rare experience — unprecedented during the past five years of the intifada — of being cheered by Khan Yunis’ Palestinian populace, who came out onto the streets to welcome him.

But a day before he arrived there, the streets of Gaza were the site of another murder.

On Wednesday, a noted Al Fatah activist in Gaza City, Assad al-Saftawi, was shot dead by unknown assailants. He was the third member of the PLO’s mainstream Fatah movement to meet this fate since the self-rule agreement was signed.

Rabin said he was not ruling out internecine strife within Fatah as the reason for the murder.

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