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Israel releasing 400 Palestinian prisoners


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Palestinian prisoners aboard a bus Thursday prepare to leave Israel for border checkpoints.
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israel began the release of about 400 Palestinian prisoners Thursday -- the second phase of the prisoner releases promised under a cease-fire agreement between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian prisoners began boarding buses from prisons in Israel for the ride to border checkpoints Thursday morning.

About 500 Palestinian prisoners were freed in the first phase on February 21.

Sharon has said the 900 prisoners gaining freedom are all "without blood on their hands."

Sharon and Abbas made their agreement in February at a summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

The Israeli leader has said the prisoner release would strengthen the hand of Abbas, whom he has praised for making a "strategic decision to condemn violence and terrorism."

Last week, Abbas met in Washington with President Bush, who pledged $50 million in direct aid to the Palestinian Authority. The meeting constituted the first White House talks in five years between U.S. and Palestinian leaders.

Bush said the aid is meant "to help ensure that the Gaza disengagement is a success." Israel plans to withdraw from that region this summer.

The money will be used for new housing and infrastructure projects in Gaza, "where poverty and unemployment are very high," Bush said.

It's the first direct aid the United States has given to the Palestinian Authority. Previous donations have gone through non-governmental organizations.

In addition, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be dispatched to Jerusalem and the West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss the Israeli pullout, Bush said.

Abbas thanked Bush for his support and said Israeli-Palestinian violence was at its "lowest level in four years."

On Tuesday, Abbas underwent a successful minor heart procedure, one of his top advisers said Wednesday in an interview with WAFA, the official Palestinian news agency. (Full story)

The procedure was carried out in a hospital in Amman, Jordan.

Abbas, 70, has been discharged and plans to return Friday to Ramallah, adviser Tayeb Abdul Rahman told the news agency.


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