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Israel begins third round of Palestinian prisoner releases

Israel has started to release of a further group of prisoners as part of a five-month-old peace process. The move comes amid reports that Israeli officials are planning new settlements for annexed land.

Israel began the release process just after midnight local time (2200 UTC) on Tuesday, with the prisoners being transferred from a West Bank military base to which they had been taken in preparation.

Among those freed were five inmates considered to be residents of Israel, who were headed back to annexed east Jerusalem. Three more, from Gaza, were sent home in a separate convoy.

The remaining 18 inmates, from the West Bank, were to remain at the base ahead of a security check and a welcome ceremony at the Ramallah headquarters of President Mahmoud Abbas.

The releases come after a High Court rejected an appeal against the move by victims' families. A group representing the families, Almagor, had also object to two previous releases in August and October.

The move came a day before US Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to return to the Middle East in an effort to bring fresh impetus to negotiations. Kerry is due to hold meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abbas.

Imprisoned before peace accords

The 26 inmates had been jailed before the 1993 Oslo accords, which formally launched the Middle East peace process, were signed. They had served 19 to 28 years for killing Israeli civilians or soldiers.

Kerry expressed "his appreciation for Prime Minister Netanyahu's decision to release the third tranche of prisoners," State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said as the releases began.

The talks involving Kerry were to "discuss with both leaders (Netanyahu and Abbas) the proposed framework for negotiations" as they work toward a full Israeli-Palestinian deal, Harf said.

However, she refused to be drawn on reports that Israel was set to accompany the releases with an announcement of new settlements planned for the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Israel's settlement construction on land the Palestinians want for a future independent state is a key sticking point in negotiations, and there are fears the move will jeopardize

peace efforts.

Kerry helped persuade the two sides to resume direct talks at the end of July, with

the goal of reaching a peace deal within nine months.

That target expires at the end of April.

rc/av (AFP, dpa)

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