26 Palestinian prisoners to be freed by Israel before peace talks

JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel is to release 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners ahead of a resumption of Middle East peace talks scheduled for Wednesday. The exact timing is still to be announced.

The release of the prisoners, all but one of whom were jailed before the Palestinian Authority was formed in 1994, has been hailed by Palestinian negotiators but has incensed some Israeli officials.

Many of the inmates were arrested on charges of murder, according to a list published on Monday, and the families of the victims have appealed unsuccessfully against their release.

The 26 prisoners will constitute the first batch of 104 long-term Palestinian prisoners to be freed in four stages, depending on progress in the US-brokered peace talks.

Israel's Prison Service released a list with the 26 prisoners' names, felonies, and dates of arrest as well as the names of their victims.

Twenty of the 26 were arrested for "murder," five for being "accomplices to murder," and one for "abduction and killing." The longest-serving of the group, Fayez Hammad al-Khawr, has been incarcerated since 1985.

And Jamil al-Natshe, a 50-year-old jailed in 1992, was accused by Israel of forming the first cells of Hamas's armed wing the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades in the West Bank and Gaza.

A Palestinian-compiled list of the prisoners says 15 are from the Gaza Strip, and the rest from various West Bank towns including Ramallah, Nablus, Salfit, Hebron, Bethlehem and Jenin.

Fourteen of them will be transferred to Gaza and the other 12 to the West Bank, Israel says, but it is unclear if they will be returned to their hometowns - Israel could exile some West Bank inmates to Gaza, for example.

Two of the prisoners were to be released anyway in the next six months, and a further eight over the next three years.