Palestinian prisoners freed in peace move

Israel has released 26 Palestinian inmates, including many convicted over killings, ahead of long-stalled Middle East peace talks.

The move angered the families of those killed by the prisoners, who were welcomed as heroes in the West Bank and Gaza after their night-time release that was aimed at preventing the spectacle of prisoners flashing victory signs as has happened in the past.

Buses carrying the inmates departed the Ayalon prison in central Israel. Relatives of the victims, many with their hands painted red to symbolise what they say is the blood on the hands of the inmates, held protests throughout the day and some protesters tried briefly to block the buses from leaving.

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The released prisoners were greeted by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas personally and he later laid a wreath at the grave of late president Yasser Arafat.

Mr Abbas delivered a short speech congratulating the prisoners and said he will “not rest until they are all released”. There are about 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

“You are just the beginning and the rest will come,” he said.

The release was part of an agreement brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to get Israel and the Palestinians back to the table for peace talks that had been paralysed since 2008. In all, 104 convicts are to be released in four batches, although their freedom is contingent on progress in peace talks.

Israelis and Palestinians are launching talks in Jerusalem, following a preparatory round two weeks ago in Washington.

Most of the prisoners were convicted of killings, including Israeli civilians, soldiers and suspected Palestinian collaborators, while others were involved in attempted murder or kidnapping.

Celebrations erupted in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where thousands of Palestinian well-wishers awaited the buses’ arrival. Palestinians generally view the prisoners as heroes regardless of their acts, arguing they made personal sacrifices in the struggle for independence.

Fireworks lit the sky in Gaza as celebrations marked the releases.