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Kerry heads back to Mideast as Israel set for new prisoner release

Update: December, 30/2013 - 11:09

JERUSALEM – US Secretary of State John Kerry is returning to the Mideast to boost the faltering negotiations while Israel prepared on Monday to free 26 Palestinian prisoners under peace talks brokered by the US.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had agreed to the phased release of 104 Palestinian prisoners in line with commitments to the US-backed talks, which resumed in July, and previous batches were freed in August and October.

The release of the third tranche of 26 prisoners "should come on Monday night after the 48-hour delay given for appeals from victims' families to the supreme court," an official in Netanyahu's office said.

on Sunday, a committee of Israeli ministers voted initial approval of a bill that would annex the settlements in the Jordan Valley. Israel wants to keep a military presence there, but the Palestinians reject such a notion.

The proposal was slammed by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni as "irresponsible" and aimed at getting Regev media attention.

Livni, who is also Israel's chief negotiator with the Palestinians, said on her Facebook page she and other ministers would appeal against the bill, effectively paralysing it before it could be approved in parliament.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told Palestinian news agency Maan the vote showed Israel's "indifference" to international law, and called on the international community to hold Israel accountable for it.

The latest prisoner release comes as Kerry prepares to begin a fresh tour of the region on New Year's Day to try to push the talks forward.

It will be his 10th trip to Israel and the occupied West Bank since March, with his most recent visit made earlier this month.

Kerry has been pressing Israel and the Palestinians to agree a framework for a final settlement ahead of an agreed late April target date for the talks to conclude.

US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told army radio that "the objective is to reach a framework for the negotiations in the coming months, that would put an end to the Israeli-Palestinian" conflict.

The ambassador did not rule out the possibility of the talks extending beyond their April deadline, something specifically excluded by Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas at an Arab League meeting in Cairo this month.

Abbas also ruled out any more interim accords like the successive deals in the 1990s that gave the Palestinians limited autonomy in Gaza and parts of the West Bank. AFP

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