Israel Frees 400 Palestinian Prisoners in Bid to Shore Up Abbas

The release, strongly supported by Bush administration, goes ahead despite Jihad suicide bomb bid.

Israel released 398 Palestinian prisoners Thursday, in what Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called a bid to shore up support for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas ahead of the summer withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

Strongly supported by the Bush administration, the releases went ahead despite a foiled Islamic Jihad bid to carry out a double suicide bombing in Jerusalem earlier in the day.

The first of the 398 prisoners being released arrived early Thursday in the West Bank city of Tul Karm. Others were released at different crossing points in the West Bank and Gaza. The release is the last phase of an Israeli pledge to release 900 prisoners as part of a cease-fire deal.

The planned double suicide bombing, slated to take place in Jerusalem on Thursday morning, was foiled by the Shin Bet security service, the Israel Defense Forces and the Jerusalem District Police.

The Islamic Jihad network said to be behind the planned attack was responsible for the February suicide bombing at the Stage nightclub in Tel Aviv that left five Israelis dead.

Israel freed 500 prisoners following a February summit in Egypt in which Israel and the PA declared an end to hostilities. The Palestinians complained at the time that most had already completed nearly their entire sentence and were set to be released within a short time.

In the wake of the Tel Aviv attack, however, Israel delayed the second round of prisoner releases.

In the past, Israel has refused to release prisoners who have not served two-thirds of their terms, but 93 of the detainees had only completed a fraction of their sentences.

Some of the prisoners released were charged for attempted shootings, preparing explosives and assisting attempted murder.

More than a quarter of the prisoners are Hamas members, Army Radio reported. A total of 380 of the men are from the West Bank, the remaining 18 from the Gaza Strip.

Two Palestinian prisoners slated for release refused on Thursday morning to leave jail, Israel Radio reported. One of the prisoners wanted to complete studies for his high school diploma in detention. The second individual expressed a desire to remain with his imprisoned brother.

Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, welcomed Thursday's release, but said Israel must go further.

"I think it's making 400 Palestinian families happy today and I hope that we can also make happy the other 8,000 families who are concerned about their loved ones," Erekat said.

But other Palestinian officials dismissed the planned release as a public relations stunt and said Abbas needs more prisoners freed to preserve a shaky cease-fire deal with the militant groups.

"If this step was aimed at strengthening President Abbas, then it is not enough," said Sofian Abu Zaydeh, Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs.

David Baker, an official at the Prime Minister?s Office, said the release was meant to boost Abbas, who Israel says has not moved quickly enough against militants.

"The prisoner release is geared to bolster Mahmoud Abbas and the moderate elements in the Palestinian Authority," he said. "We do hope that the Palestinians also follow through on their commitments, specifically taking counter measures to thwart terror attacks against Israel."

Olmert: Either strengthen PA, or opt for warDeputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, asked Thursday how Israel could reconcile the release with continuing efforts to carry out terror attacks, said "We never deluded ourselves into thinking that the suicide terrorists would stop their activities in the blink of an eye."

According to Olmert, Israel stands by its belief that the Palestinian Authority must do more to combat terrorism, but the government must also work to aid the PA in this effort:

"The question is whether we have an interest in strengthening these trends, or prove to ourselves that they're doing nothing, so there's no point in doing anything, no point in dialogue, no point in efforts, rather war all the time, aggressive activity all the time."

In the framework of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, "we promised to free prisoners, as part of the process of renewed dialogue with the Palestinian Authority, and we are standing by that obligation," Olmert told Army Radio.

The prisoners, residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, will include some members of the Islamic movements but the majority will be Fatah activists.

The list of prisoners slated for release was compiled by a committee headed by Justice Ministry Director General Aharon Abramovitz together with representatives from the police, Israel Defense Forces, Prisons Service and the Shin Bet.

None of the prisoners slated for release on Thursday had been convicted of attacks that killed or wounded Israelis, officials said.