Israel releases 26 prisoners as Kerry heads back to region

Israel releases 26 prisoners as Kerry heads back to region
Nael Barghuti, a former Palestinian prisoner who was released

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories - Israel on Tuesday freed 26 Palestinian prisoners under peace talks brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who returns to the region this week to boost the faltering negotiations.

The prisoners were the third batch of 104 detainees that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged to let go in four stages when the peace talks were revived in July.The release shortly after 0000 GMT came after an Israeli court rejected a last-minute appeal by victims' families.

Washington hailed the release as a "positive step forward in the overall process" as Kerry prepared to return to the region on New Year's Day to hammer out a framework to guide the fragile peace talks.

A palestinian official told AFP that "two vans carrying (18) prisoners left Ofer prison" for Ramallah.

Three other prisoners taken to the Gaza Strip and five others driven from Ofer to Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem reached their destinations just before 02:30 am (0030 GMT), AFP correspondents said.

Victims' families had protested the release of the five east Jerusalem prisoners, which they said contradicted a committment made by Netanyahu.

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

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