Palestinian prime minister cancels talks with Sharon

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JERUSALEM - The Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, pulled out of talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel yesterday after complaints over an Israeli plan to free nearly 350 Palestinian prisoners.

The meeting would have coincided with the prisoner release today, but the Palestinians say the release does not go far enough and want amnesty for all or most of the 6,000 of their jailed compatriots.

Abbas "canceled the meeting because it will only be ceremonial on the day prisoners are released, and he believes the Israelis are not doing enough to promote the road map," Reuters reported a senior Palestinian official as saying.

The Israeli news media reported earlier that the Israelis had canceled the meeting because of a shooting attack Sunday that wounded a woman and her three children near Bethlehem.

But Ehud Olmert, minister of industry and trade and deputy prime minister, told the Israeli Army Radio that Sharon had not set any conditions for the meeting to take place, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom also postponed planned meetings yesterday with Palestinian Authority ministers.

Sharon and Abbas last met July 20, before their separate talks with President Bush in Washington, and said then that they would later meet again.

The cancellation is a further delay in peace moves.

The current peace plan, known as the road map, does not require Israel to free prisoners.

But Abbas has made releasing Palestinians jailed by the Israelis a top priority, and Israel says it wants to strengthen Abbas' position.

Instead of nudging the negotiations forward, though, the prisoner issue has become a leading point of contention.

Palestinians say the Israelis are giving far too little, and some rightist Israelis accuse their government of giving too much.

Palestinian factions are threatening to call off a month-old truce if Israel does not make concessions.

In turn, Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofa, said Israel would not withdraw troops from additional Palestinian cities on the West Bank until the Palestinians acted against those involved in attacks against Israelis. He spoke after Sunday's shooting.

Sharon has repeatedly said he will not release Palestinians believed to have been involved in violence.

Israel has freed about 250 prisoners in recent weeks and says this can continue if the Palestinians work to prevent attacks.

Israel also continues to make arrests.

On Monday the government announced that it had seized two Arab residents of East Jerusalem on suspicion that they had assisted two suicide bombers who killed a total of 24 people in May and June.

Also Monday, Israeli soldiers fatally shot a Palestinian who was planting a bomb along a road used by troops near the West Bank town of Tulkarm, the military said.

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