RAMALLAH, West Bank Israel freed nearly 200 jailed Palestinians on Monday including a militant mastermind from the 1970s in a goodwill gesture just hours before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began her latest peace mission to the region.
The prisoners received a hero's welcome upon their return to the West Bank, where thousands of people joined celebrations at the Ramallah headquarters of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and elsewhere throughout the West Bank.
"We will not rest until the prisoners are freed and the jails are empty," Abbas told the cheering crowd.
The prisoners arrived in Ramallah after being released at an Israeli military checkpoint near Jerusalem. The prisoners, some waving black-and-white checkered keffiyeh headdresses as they stepped off Israeli buses, kissed the ground before boarding Palestinian vehicles.
Among the 198 Palestinians freed was Said al-Atba, who served 31 years of a life sentence for masterminding a 1977 market bombing that killed one woman and wounded dozens others in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv.
Al-Atba, 57, was the longest serving Palestinian inmate in Israel and is widely seen by Palestinians as a symbol of all the prisoners.
"I feel like I've been born again," al-Atba told The Associated Press, but noted that thousands of prisoners remain behind. "We salute them and we must do all that we can to liberate them."
His brother, Hisham, came from Saudi Arabia, where he works, to greet him, saying he felt "great joy" and "we had lost hope that my brother would be released." Al-Atba's sister, Raida, said she prepared her brother's favorite food, stuffed vine leaves and zucchini.
Israel said the release was a gesture meant to bolster Abbas and his Western-leaning administration and give a boost to the slow-moving peace talks with the moderate Palestinian leader.
"It's not easy for Israel to release prisoners. Some of the individuals being released today are guilty of direct involvement in the murder of innocent civilians," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said. "We believe this action can support the negotiation process and create goodwill."
The fate of the roughly 9,000 prisoners in Israeli jails is emotional for Palestinians, many who know somebody behind bars or who have served themselves. Abbas, who is struggling to show his people the fruits of the peace talks, has repeatedly urged Israel to carry out a large-scale release.
Upon her arrival in Tel Aviv, Rice praised the Israeli gesture. "This is something that matters a lot to the Palestinians, it matters a lot to the Palestinian people and it is obviously a sign of goodwill," she said, calling on both sides to carry out more confidence-building measures.
Rice, making her seventh trip to the region since peace talks were relaunched last year, has been trying to broker a peace agreement by the end of the year.
Speaking to reporters while flying to Tel Aviv, she acknowledged it was unlikely the sides would meet their year-end target, but said all sides remain committed to that goal. The talks have been complicated by Israeli political turmoil and Palestinian infighting.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is battling a corruption investigation, has said he will step down after his party chooses a new leader next month. It remains unclear who his successor will be, and whether the government will be able to stay in power.
On the Palestinian side, the Hamas militant group seized control of the Gaza Strip from Abbas' forces last year. Israel has said it will not carry out any peace deal until Abbas regains control over Gaza. Both Israel and the U.S. have labeled Hamas a terrorist group.Hamas is demanding Israel free of hundreds of prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants in a cross-border raid two years ago.
AP correspondent Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah contributed to this report.