Israel agrees to release 100 Islamic militants


Israel's government approved a proposal by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today to free 100 Islamic militants, a step intended to boost a US-backed peace plan and help the Palestinian premier, political sources said.

They said the cabinet approved the decision in a 14-9 vote shortly before Mr Sharon was due to leave for Washington, where he will discuss the peace "road map" with US President George W. Bush in the White House on Tuesday.

"This is a risk we are willing to take," Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said before the vote. In another gesture intended to smooth the way for Mr Sharon's visit, troops removed a checkpoint near the West Bank city of Ramallah, opening the road to about 100 villages for the first time since a Palestinian uprising for independence began.

The 100 members of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups who will be released were not involved in attacks on Israelis. They will be added to a list of several hundred Palestinians slated for release this week.

Sharon had until now balked at releasing any militants but wants to improve the standing of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Mr Abu Mazen, under pressure from Islamic militants to secure the release of all jailed members of their groups.

Israeli political sources said a total of 600 to 650 prisoners might be released this week. "The main aim here is to strengthen Mr Abu Mazen's standing," one source said.

Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Amr welcomed the cabinet decision but called for more prisoners to be released.

"This is a positive step from the Israeli government and we hope that we will see more releases of further batches of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails," he said.