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Israel set for new prisoner release as Kerry heads back to region

Dec. 29, 2013 9:30 A.M. (Updated: Dec. 31, 2013 10:36 A.M.)
JERUSALEM (AFP) -- Israel prepared Sunday to free 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of peace talks brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who is due back in the region to boost the faltering negotiations.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to the phased release of 104 Palestinian prisoners in line with commitments to the US-backed talks, which resumed in July, and previous batches have been freed in August and October.

The release of the third tranche of 26 Palestinian prisoners "should come on Monday night after the 48-hour delay given for appeals from victims' families to the supreme court," an official in Netanyahu's office told AFP.

In the past, Israel's supreme court has turned down all appeals against the release of Palestinian prisoners.

Netanyahu's government gave the green light on Saturday for the latest tranche of prisoners to be freed.

"All of the released prisoners perpetrated offences prior to the (1993) Oslo accords and have served sentences of 19-28 years," a government statement said.

To the fury of the Palestinians, the two previous prisoner releases were accompanied by announcements of new construction plans for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, including annexed East Jerusalem.

Monday's is expected to be no different despite appeals to desist from the the United States as well as the European Union.

Israeli media reports suggested Netanyahu was likely to unveil plans to build an additional 1,400 housing units, on top of those already announced, following strong pressure from ultra-nationalist members of his governing coalition.

At a meeting of his right-wing Likud party last week, Netanyahu was defiant in the face of the EU and US pressure for a freeze while talks continue.

"We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing ... the settlement enterprise," he said.

The latest prisoner release comes as Kerry prepares to begin a fresh tour of the region on New Year's Day to try to push the talks forward.

It will be his 10th trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank since March, with his most recent visit earlier this month.

Kerry has been pressing Israel and the Palestinians to agree a framework for a final settlement ahead of an agreed late April target date for the conclusion of the negotiations.

US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told army radio that "the objective is to reach a framework for the negotiations in the coming months, that would put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian" conflict.

Shapiro admitted he "did not know if there would be a breakthrough this visit, but he (Kerry) could return again later."

The ambassador did not rule out the possibility that the talks could extend beyond their April deadline, something specifically excluded by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at an Arab League meeting in Cairo earlier this month.

At same meeting, Abbas also ruled out any more interim accords like the successive deals in the 1990s that gave the Palestinians limited autonomy in Gaza and parts of the West Bank.
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