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Palestinians Discuss Releasing Two Prisoners

The Palestinian Cabinet on Friday discussed the fate of two senior officials imprisoned as part of a U.S.-brokered deal that led to Yasser Arafat's release from Israeli confinement this week, and Palestinian officials said they expected the two to be freed soon.

Palestinian officials said that under the U.S. deal, the fate of Ahmed Saadat and Fuad Shobaki was left in the hands of the Palestinian legal system.

Israeli officials disputed the claim, saying they were assured by the United States that Saadat and Shobaki would remain locked up as a condition for freeing Arafat.

Israel had initially demanded the extradition of Saadat, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and Shobaki, a senior Arafat aide.

Israel accuses Saadat of masterminding the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Zeevi in October, and alleges Shobaki financed a large shipment of illegal weapons.

Saadat and Shobaki are being held, along with the four convicted Zeevi assassins, in a prison in the West Bank town of Jericho, with security experts sent by the governments of the United States and Britain supervising the detention.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that "the arrangement is to keep these people in custody." Boucher said that anything other than that would have to be discussed.

However, officials close to the negotiations said parts of the deal had been left purposely vague to allow for a quick agreement on getting Arafat released from Israeli confinement at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

One official, asked whether it was possible Saadat and Shobaki could be freed soon, said he could not respond to hypothetical questions.

The six detainees were transferred Wednesday from Arafat's Ramallah headquarters to Jericho.

Arafat told Saadat just before his transfer to Jericho that he had nothing to worry about and that he would be released within 10 days, said a Palestinian official who participated in the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Neither Saadat nor Shobaki has been charged in Palestinian courts, while the four Zeevi assassins were convicted and sentenced last week by a makeshift tribunal in Arafat's compound, receiving terms ranging from one to 18 years.

Arafat told the Arab satellite TV station Al Jazeera on Thursday that there was no evidence against Saadat and Shobaki.

"Regarding Shobaki, the investigation has shown that he is innocent," Arafat said. "Saadat is the secretary general of the PFLP, the second largest faction in the PLO. We will deal with his issue through legal procedures and I have spoken about this with Secretary of State Colin Powell by phone. The investigation has shown that there is nothing against Saadat."

Palestinian officials said they expected the Palestinian attorney general to order Saadat's release in the coming days.

The Palestinian Authority is under growing pressure to release Saadat. On Thursday, Arafat received a letter from all Palestinian political groups demanding Saadat's release.

On Friday, the Palestinian Cabinet met to discuss the fate of the two.

Israeli officials said they believed the United States and Britain would not permit the release of Saadat and Shobaki. "There is no suggestion that the Americans and the British see these two fellows as anything but prisoners," said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"They have to be under lock and barrel until they are extradited to Israel for trial," Shoval said.