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Israel releases prisoners

Israel released more than 500 Palestinian prisoners Tuesday to coax the PLO back to peace talks suspended after the Hebron mosque massacre. Another 500 are to be freed by the weekend.

Palestinians scoffed at the gesture.

"I think the Israelis are releasing us now to make the Palestinians happy," freed prisoner Wael Salameh, 38, said when he arrived in Hebron, where more than 30 Muslim worshipers were slain by a Jewish settler Friday. "This is not a real step for peace."

That was the PLO line, too. Samir Ghosheh, a member of the PLO's ruling Executive Committee, dismissed the release as "irrelevant to the real issue of providing protection for our people."

He called it cosmetic surgery to dampen the violence that has swept the occupied territories and parts of Israel since Friday's massacre.

The PLO won't resume peace talks with Israel unless certain guarantees are provided to protect Palestinians living under occupation, he said.

But, amid intense diplomatic maneuvering, there were signs that these may now be forthcoming. Israeli sources were optimistic the suspended talks would resume following Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's offer of a package of concessions that go partway toward meeting PLO demands.

Western and Arab diplomats in Tunisia, the PLO's headquarters, said Israel's concessions, offered this week, include strengthening a Palestinian police force in what would be self-rule areas in Gaza and the West Bank town of Jericho. Israel also would disarm settlers in those areas.

Rabin also offered to allow international observers into the territories for the first time since Israel captured them in the 1967 Mideast War.

The PLO's ruling Executive Committee rejected the package early Tuesday, saying it did not go far enough.

The PLO wants an armed multinational protection force.